Stanford’s Robert Weisberg on Involuntary Manslaughter Conviction of School Shooter’s Parents

Stanford’s Robert Weisberg on Involuntary Manslaughter Conviction of School Shooter’s Parents

While school shootings continue unabated in the United States, with gun control efforts stalled in Congress, two recent court rulings may have an impact.

On March 14, James Crumbley, the father of convicted school shooter Ethan Crumbley, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter by an Oakland County jury. Ethan’s mother Jennifer Crumbley was convicted of involuntary manslaughter earlier this year. Ethan Crumbley, 15 at the time of the shooting, was convicted last year on 24 charges including first-degree murder for killing four schoolmates at Oxford High School in Michigan. His parents were soon charged after it was discovered that they had bought their son a Sig Sauer gun prior to the shooting.

This marks the first time that the parents of a school shooter faced charges for their child’s crime.

Here, Stanford criminal law expert Robert Weisberg discusses the charges and case.

Can you discuss how the American criminal justice system holds people associated with a crime accountable. To some, it may seem unfair to go to prison if you don’t pull the trigger.

There’s nothing unusual about a non-trigger person being liable for someone else fatally shooting the victim. Under standard complicity law, the non-shooter can be equally guilty of a murder charge for “aiding and abetting” (i.e., helping to cause) the killing. But that usually happens when the non-shooter shared the intent to kill. What’s unusual here is that we have a clearly intentional killing by the shooter, but the father is guilty of the lesser crime of involuntary manslaughter. Clearly, he never intended the shooting, but he helped cause it in a grossly negligent way. So he isn’t an “accomplice” in the usual sense. We might just as well say that you can be grossly negligent in handling a gun, and by analogy, the son was the dangerous weapon the father mishandled.

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Robert Weisberg, Edwin E. Huddleson, Jr. Professor of Law

It seems that the jury, which deliberated for just 11 hours, found the evidence against James Crumbley convincing. Can you talk about that a bit? How was the Oakland County prosecutor convincing?

Here it was really very, very strong. The father had plenty of notice of the son’s destructive—indeed homicidal—proclivities. He gave his son a gun even after he was aware of how troubled and unstable the son was. The defense offered an extremely unconvincing account of the way the father purported to have hidden the gun from the son. Yes, the defense argued that the father wasn’t the key cause of the crime, but the jury could certainly find him a substantial contributing cause—and that can be enough. Perhaps the most damning fact was that after a meeting with school officials on the morning of the killing, where they showed the father the son’s terrifying drawing of a gun and a shot person, the father did nothing.

What will happen to the Crumbley parents now? How stiff are the penalties for these manslaughter convictions? How much prison time do you expect they’ll receive?

The theoretical possible penalty here is four times the statutory maximum of 15 years. For sure as a practical matter, the maximum sentence will only be 15 years. But that 15-year maximum in Michigan is very high compared to that in other states. Generally involuntary manslaughter sentences are in the range of a handful of years, and I’ll venture to guess that the judge will think something of that order is enough.

And what happens next? Do you expect them to appeal? And do you think the appeal will have a good chance of success?

Of course, we can expect an appeal. I doubt it will succeed. This is what we call a very fact-bound case. The jury had to exercise its common sense judgment about just how “grossly negligent” the father was and how much of a causal role he played. So, the defense may be left with the always weak argument that the prosecution evidence was so woefully insufficient that no reasonable jury could convict. Appellate courts defer to juries. I’m not sure that there are any other clean legal issues that an appellate court would be interested in.

While there have been civil cases related to mass shootings, are you surprised that this kind of criminal case hasn’t been brought before?

In other cases, parents have seemed culpable for allowing an obviously troubled youth to have a gun and have failed to act in the face of warning signs. But prosecutors have been cautious about whether a jury would want to so blame the parent as to hand down a homicide verdict. This case was just so much clearer than the others and the prosecutors were right to think that this one merited a criminal charge. Who knows whether this conviction will change the behavior of parents in such horrible situations.