The parents of Ethan Crumbley, 15, were arrested in Detroit after allegedly hiding out in a warehouse as police searched for them. Both James and Jennifer Crumbley face involuntary manslaughter charges. The police are suggesting that they were assisted in their alleged flight and may charge third parties. There was a $10,000 reward posted for their arrests. The question now is whether the involuntary manslaughter charges will survive challenges at the trial or appellate levels.
The attorney for the Crumbleys reportedly said that they were not fleeing, though there will have to be some explanation why, if true, they were found in a warehouse near the Canadian border.
Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald on Friday announced that each of the parents will face four counts of involuntary manslaughter. Each count could carry a 15 year sentence, though they would likely run concurrently if the parents are convicted and sentenced.
If the reported facts are correct, there was ample evidence of negligence. First, the police allege that the parents purchased the gun for their son. Under Michigan law, Ethan Crumbley was not allowed to own a gun until he was 18. Yet, on the day of the purchase on “Black Friday,” Jennifer Crumbley reportedly posted on social media, writing, “Mom and son day testing out his new Christmas present.”
Ethan posted photos of the gun on social media, writing, “Just got my new beauty today” and adding a heart emoji.
The police also say that the Crumbleys kept the gun in an unlocked drawer in their bedroom.
On Nov. 29, the parents were called about Ethan searching for ammunition on his phone. Jennifer Crumbley sent him a text saying “LOL I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught.” That can be dismissed as a kid obsessed with a new gun. However, what followed should have removed any doubt of a more troubling context.
Later Ethan was seen drawing disturbing images including a drawing of a semi-automatic handgun pointing at the words, “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me.” Other images showed victims and blood with such statements as “My life is useless” and “The world is dead.”
The parents left Ethan in school after their meeting on Nov. 30. After the shooting was reported, Jennifer Crumbley sent a text message to her son after news of the school shooting became public, writing, “Ethan don’t do it.” A little while later, James Crumbley called 911 and reported that a gun was missing from his house, and that he believed his son may be the shooter at Oxford High School.
That is all, if true, incredibly negligent, but does it amount to negligent homicide?
Under the state provisions for manslaughter (750.321 and 750.322), the crime does not require malice aforethought.
The state must prove that the Crumbleys caused the death of the deceased victim, that the deceased individual died as a result of their actions by (1) intending to kill the victim, (2) intending to do great bodily harm to the victim, or (3) creating a situation where the risk of great bodily harm or death was very high, knowing that as a result of the defendant’s actions he or she knew that serious harm or death would likely result. The prosecutors must also show that the defendant caused the death of the victim without justification or lawful excuse.
It is obviously the third option that is the likely basis for these charges.
However, the charge seems a workaround of the fact that Michigan opted not to enact a child access prevention law. The purchase of the gun could be explained as a promise that he would eventually receive the gun when he was 18 but that, until then, it would remain under their control. Children are allowed to use guns in the state under parental supervision.
The key question is whether this level of negligence is sufficient to create a situation where the risk of great bodily harm or death was very high, knowing that as a result of the defendant’s actions he or she knew that serious harm or death would likely result. The fact that they left the gun in an unlocked drawer would not be sufficient. Unfortunately, that is all too common and is not a crime in a state without a child access prevention law. This demands more than simply negligence but a recklessness that led to conditions likely to cause such fatalities.
The issue will come down any prior knowledge of his instability and murderous fantasies. They obviously were made aware of those fantasies on Nov. 30th. Even if Jennifer sent that text after the news of the shootings, it is clear that she immediately thought of her son. It is not clear if they had already discovered the gun was missing at that point. That fact will be key in any proceedings.
The viability of these charges will depend on the police having additional information showing knowledge by the parents of the son’s violent inclinations or potential. It is not clear how much information that they were able to get from the parents or their son before these charges. We have seen in cases like Rittenhouse, a rush to bring charges before all of the facts were known by prosecutors. It is not clear whether the prosecutors had a more complete picture in this case.