Mother of Mich. School Shooter Found Guilty of Involuntary Manslaughter

Feb. 7, 2024
Jurors deliberated for 11 hours before reaching a guilty verdict on four counts of involuntary manslaughter against Jennifer Crumbley, the mother of the Oxford High School shooter.

By Kara Berg and Julia Cardi

Source The Detroit News

PONTIAC, MI — The mother of the Oxford High School shooter on Tuesday was convicted on four counts of involuntary manslaughter, capping an emotional 11-day trial that some legal experts viewed as a possible precedent setter for holding parents criminally responsible for their children's actions.

As the 12-member jury read its verdict Tuesday afternoon in Oakland County Circuit Court, Jennifer Crumbley, with her hands clasped on a table in front of her, showed little reaction but closed her eyes and looked down. Jurors deliberated for 11 hours before arriving at a decision tied to the killing of four Oxford High students by Crumbley's son. Crumbley is scheduled to be sentenced April 9 and faces up to 15 years in prison.

"We have been asking for accountability across the board," said Craig Shilling, whose 17-year-old son, Justin, was killed in the 2021 shooting, speaking to reporters after the verdict. "This is one step towards that. I feel moving forward, it's not going to be any easier because of what we left behind, but it gives us hope for a brighter future."

The verdict capped a nationally watched trial that marked the first time a parent had been tried in connection with a mass shooting by his or her child. Prosecutors portrayed Crumbley, 45, as a negligent parent who ignored signs her 15-year-old son was in crisis, failed to get him mental health treatment and bought him a 9mm gun anyway.

But her attorney, Shannon Smith, described Crumbley as a hypervigilant, caring parent and argued that there was no way the Nov. 30, 2021, shooting was foreseeable. Experts said they expect Crumbley to appeal the verdict and sentence.

Nearly 50 people, mostly media, filled the courtroom Tuesday to hear the verdict, but some Oxford High family members attended.

Shilling, who took a leave of absence from work to attend the entire trial, called the verdict "long overdue." He hugged Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald after the verdict and shook the hands of other prosecutors.

He said the trial wasn't about his opinion or anyone else's.

"It's about the facts, the evidence and the diligence of the jury," Shilling said. "They were diligent with their decision, they understand the gravity of the situation, they understand the importance of this case and the fact that they came out with the verdict that they did shows the people have spoken."

Steve St. Juliana, whose 14-year-old daughter, Hana St. Juliana, also was killed in the shooting, was not in the courtroom when the verdict was read but attended much of the trial. Speaking to reporters in the courthouse Tuesday, he said he attended because he wanted to get answers he hadn't gotten yet and to represent his daughter.

“What stood out to me ... was about the meeting (the Crumbleys had) had with the school, and the fact that (former Dean of Students Nick) Ejak testified to say that if he would have known about access to a weapon, he would have approached it completely different,” St. Juliana said. “And I find that very disturbing.”

He said knowing the shooter had gone to the shooting range and had been looking up bullets in class — something he got in trouble for the day before the shooting — should have been enough knowledge to at least ask the question about access to a weapon.

“It’s not like he had to stretch his memory,” St. Juliana said. “It was right there in front of them, literally. As the prosecutor said, he drew them a picture.”

Also killed in the 2021 shooting were Madisyn Baldwin, 17, and Tate Myre, 16. Family members of Madisyn, Hana and Justin were in Oakland County Circuit Court throughout the trial.

Gag order still in place

McDonald did not comment after the verdict because a gag order imposed by Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Cheryl Matthews remains in place until a separate trial from Crumbley's husband, James, is over. Crumbley's attorney, Smith, also could not comment because of the gag order.

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, whose agency investigated the shooting, said his thoughts were with the victims, saying the verdict likely tore "wider" a wound that has yet to heal. Still, he applauded the jury that "plowed new ground."

“If among a parent’s first thoughts when you hear word there is an active shooter at your child’s school isn't to wonder if my child hurt but is my son the gunman. That tells me you saw the signs and did nothing," Bouchard said in a statement. "Accountability and responsibility matter."

Crumbley's conviction now sets the stage for her husband, who will be tried next. His trial is scheduled to start March 5.

Shooter Ethan Crumbley, who pleaded guilty to the killings, was sentenced in December to life in prison without the chance of parole. He is considering appealing his plea and sentence.

Sentencing guidelines

Jennifer Crumbley has no prior criminal history, which could be a factor when Matthews hands down her sentence. According to sentencing guidelines, someone with no criminal history will have a lower recommended sentence than someone with a longer criminal history.

The maximum minimum sentence Crumbley could receive is 10 years, according to state law. The guidelines are advisory and Matthews will have the option to deviate from them, but the sentence must be reasonable and must be justified.

“I think it’s a great judge for her to go in front of,” said Anjali Prasad, a Bloomfield Township defense lawyer who is a former prosecutor. “I think the judge won’t be swayed by the media or the emotions and ... I have to say will probably issue a very just sentence, whatever that will be.”

Experts said Crumbley will likely appeal her conviction and sentence, which could take as long as a year, if not longer.

Two-week trial

Prosecutors, who called 21 witnesses and introduced more than 400 exhibits during the trial, had to prove Crumbley showed gross negligence and didn't exercise ordinary care by ignoring her son's mental state and not getting him help, while still buying him a gun. Crumbley was the defense's only witness, as she took the stand in her own defense.

A journal found in the shooter's backpack detailed his plans to shoot up Oxford High School, but there was no evidence Crumbley had read it. She said she didn't read her son's text messages.

The guilty verdict means the jury found Crumbley stored the firearm and ammunition in a way that allowed the shooter to have access to it and was grossly negligent in her actions. The defense had argued that James Crumbley handled the guns in the household.

At the start of deliberations, Matthews, in her instructions, said evidence that prosecutors presented insinuating the Crumbleys ran from police after the shooting in early December of 2021 did not prove their guilt, as people may run or hide for innocent reasons or because of a consciousness of guilt.

Matthews said the jury also had to decide that the shooter’s actions were reasonably foreseeable in order to find Crumbley guilty. The jury members had to determine that Crumbley knew of the danger her son posed to others and that, had she used ordinary care, the deaths could have been avoided.

“It’s not enough that the defendant’s acts made it possible for the crime to occur,” Matthews said before deliberations began Monday. “You must find beyond a reasonable doubt that the deaths were a natural or reasonable result of the defendant’s acts.”

Caring mom? Or grossly negligent?

Attorneys sought to paint opposite pictures of Crumbley throughout the trial: Prosecutors portrayed her as an inattentive parent more concerned with her horses and an affair she was having at the time than her son, even when he expressed concerns about staying home alone and having hallucinations.

She also didn't talk about her son on jail phone calls for 10 days after she was arrested in early December 2021, according to audio recordings of her calls in Oakland County Jail played in court. Crumbley said she'd been told her calls would be flagged if she mentioned his name.

But according to Smith, Crumbley was an engaged parent who made the judgment calls she thought were right based on information she had at the time.

Prosecutors' witnesses included school officials who raised concerns about the shooter’s mental health, survivors of the shooting and law enforcement officers who investigated.

"She has done the unthinkable, and because of that, four kids have died," McDonald, the prosecutor, said in closing arguments Friday.

But Crumbley's attorney, Smith, accused prosecutors of purposely choosing the evidence they showed jurors to make Crumbley look like a negligent parent who ignored warning signs of the shooter's downward spiral. Smith suggested the shooter was actually not mentally ill, but a "master manipulator."

Crumbley: Son never asked for help

Crumbley defended her parenting during her nearly four hours of testimony at the tail end of the trial, saying she didn't feel like a failure. She also denied her son ever asked for mental health treatment before he opened fire on his classmates. This is despite comments Crumbley made to co-workers and a friend the day of and week after the shooting about feeling like she had failed her son.

She denied that her son asked for mental health treatment in spring 2021, let alone that she had laughed at him when he asked, something the shooter told his friend over text. She also denied that he was depressed, though she sent a text to the mom of the shooter's friend that she worried about him seeming depressed.

Crumbley said the former dean of students, Ejak, and counselor Shawn Hopkins didn't require that the shooter be taken home. Ejak and Hopkins both testified that they did not view the shooter as a threat but were more concerned about his mental health.

Crumbley said she wishes her son would've acted differently, but even looking back, she would not have changed her parenting decisions.

"I wish he would've killed us instead," Crumbley said of herself and her husband, James.

After the verdict, Shilling said hearing Crumbley say that during the trial felt like a "slap in the face." St. Juliana agreed.

"And it hurts," said Shilling, standing inside the Oakland County Circuit Court. "Something like that hurts because I would do a lot differently. I would do a lot differently."

Detroit News staff writer Hayley Harding contributed to this story.

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©2024 www.detroitnews.com. Visit at detroitnews.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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