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Here’s What Prosecutors Must Prove to Convict Ethan Crumbley’s Parents in Deadly Michigan School Shooting

Jennifer Crumbley, Ethan Crumbley, and James Crumbley appear in mugshots taken by the jail in Oakland County, Mich., in Dec. 2021.

Jennifer Crumbley, Ethan Crumbley, and James Crumbley appear in mugshots taken by the jail in Oakland County, Mich., in Dec. 2021.

Michigan prosecutors on Friday charged the parents of Ethan Crumbley, 15, with four counts each of involuntary manslaughter. That’s one count for each of the teens who died in the attack at Oxford High School last Tuesday. Despite the dramatic and hotly contested nature of the arrest of father James Crumbley, 45, mother Jennifer Crumbley, 43, and the facts of the case, attention will soon shift to the elements of the offense which prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt in order to secure a conviction.

Under Michigan law, involuntary manslaughter is punishable by “not more than 15 years” in a state prison, a fine of up to $7,500, “or both, at the discretion of the court.” It is a crime which alleges the Crumbley parents unintentionally caused the deaths of the four victims of the shooting. The charge requires the state to prove two basic elements:  (1) causation, and (2) gross negligence.

The state’s model jury instructions explain the elements of the offense. To convict, the state will be forced to prove each element beyond a reasonable doubt.

First, the state must prove “that the defendant caused the death” of each victim — “that is, that [each victim] died as a result of” specific alleged acts of the defendant.

Second, the state must prove that the victims’ deaths were the result of the defendants having “acted in a grossly negligent manner.”

According to the model jury instructions, gross negligence is defined as “more than carelessness.” Rather, “[i]t means willfully disregarding the results to others that might follow from an act or failure to act.”

To prove gross negligence, the state must prove the following three elements beyond a reasonable doubt:

First, that the defendant knew of the danger to another, that is, [the defendant] knew there was a situation that required [him / her] to take ordinary care to avoid injuring another.

Second, that the defendant could have avoided injuring another by using ordinary care.

Third, that the defendant failed to use ordinary care to prevent injuring another when, to a reasonable person, it must have been apparent that the result was likely to be serious injury.

According to charging documents on file this case, prosecutors have alleged the following acts of the parents as having caused the death of the four victims: “storing his or her firearm and its ammunition so as to allow access to the firearm and ammunition by his or her minor child.”

Next, prosecutors have alleged gross negligence, or a “failure to perform the following legal duty.” Here’s their verbiage on those allegations, again according to charging documents:

[F]ailure to exercise reasonable care to control his or her minor child so as to prevent him from intentionally harming others or from conducting himself so as to create an unreasonable risk of bodily harm to others knowing that he or she has the ability to control his or her child and knowing of the necessity and opportunity to do so.

The Crumbley parents pleaded not guilty to all of the counts on Saturday morning. During an arraignment, James Crumbley and two defense attorneys — Shannon Smith and Mariell Lehman — visibly shook their heads in disagreement when prosecutors alleged the Crumbleys kept their Sig Sauer 9mm handgun in such a manner that allowed Ethan to access it and use it to allegedly murder four fellow students. Prosecutors have alleged that James Crumbley purchased the weapon on Fri., Nov. 26, just four days before the shooting; Jennifer Crumbley allegedly posted on social media that the gun was a gift for Ethan.

“That gun was actually locked,” the defense attorneys said during an attempt to refute the state’s case for the purposes of securing a lower bond. “So when the prosecution is stating that child had free access to a gun, that is just absolutely not true. We need an opportunity to fight this case in court and not in the court of public opinion.”

In other words, to quote the language of the jury instructions, the defense is poising itself to argue that the state can’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants “failed to use ordinary care.”

In Michigan, involuntary manslaughter is a “common-law” criminal offense.  It is not defined specifically by statute; the courts have exercised their independent constitutional power to define the parameters and nuances of the offense — subject, of course, to limitations imposed by the U.S. Constitution against vagueness and against the creation of ex-post-facto laws (which belatedly criminalize acts that were “innocent” when committed).

“The law of manslaughter as it exists today has been adopted from the old English common law,” a 2004 Michigan Supreme Court case noted. The offense has been described by the state’s highest court as a “catch-all crime” that is “typically characterized . . . in terms of what it is, as opposed to what it is not.”

“Ascertaining whether a homicide is involuntary manslaughter requires essentially questioning first whether it is murder, voluntary manslaughter, or a justified or excused homicide,” the high court wrote. “If it is none of those, then the homicide, generally, is involuntary manslaughter.”

Under even earlier cases dating back to at least 1923, the state supreme court said manslaughter involved, among other things, “the killing of another without malice and unintentionally . . . in negligently doing some act lawful in itself . . .  or by the negligent omission to perform a legal duty.”

Prosecutors are arguing that it was negligent for the Crumbleys to leave Ethan in school on Tuesday after the teen looked for ammunition on his cell phone during the school day on Monday and drew images depicting the shootings of others in school on Tuesday. The negligence, prosecutors allege, occurred because the parents knew Ethan had access to the newly purchased and allegedly unlocked 9mm handgun at home and didn’t ensure he wasn’t armed after they learned he drew the images.

As a different 1995 state supreme court case notes, however, there are limits to involuntary manslaughter, despite its rather loose application: “where loss of life has been neither intended nor the result of any other sort of person-endangering-state-of-mind, the killing will be excused if he who caused it was not engaged in any unlawful activity at the time and was free from negligence.”

Notably, the many Michigan cases which discuss involuntary manslaughter generally consider fact patterns involving clear, overt acts: a defendant who showed up with a gun, a fight ensued, and one man died; a defendant who “slapped” his wife “once across the face with an open hand” and killed her; and defendants who put date-rape drugs into beverages and killed a woman. In the latter case, the Michigan Supreme Court noted:

Whether or not defendants acted with malice, the jury found, in either case, that they acted with a diminished mens rea of gross negligence sufficient to sustain a conviction of manslaughter. In short, defendants, by their purposeful, willful, reckless, and unlawful behavior, unintentionally killed another person, and this is exactly the type of homicide that fits within the parameters of involuntary manslaughter.

The date-rape drug case further discussed the difference between a “malum prohibitum” act — one which is not “inherently criminal” under the common law but which is nonetheless prohibited or criminalized by a statute — and a “malum in se” act — one which is inherently criminal in the eyes of the common law because it is inherently immoral. A 1924 Michigan case held that “giving and selling the deceased moonshine whisky” was malum prohibitum — in other words, criminal but necessarily immoral. Therefore, the mere provision of illegal alcohol did not, in that nearly-100-year-old case, support a valid involuntary manslaughter conviction. The case points out why:

The two men who were with the deceased and the defendant himself drank a considerable quantity of it and experienced no more serious results than would follow the drinking of the same quantity of ordinary whisky. The deceased drank six glasses of it while at defendant’s home; he drank from the jug in the automobile; he drank again on the road, but showed no ill effects other than ordinary intoxication. When his brother, Edward Harkness, left him he told Edward to go on home and that he would stay to help Casey Poort, who was asleep by a stump. Edward says that when he last saw him he was standing by the road, seemingly normal and able to take care of himself. This was three or four hours after he first partook of the liquor. In view of these facts we cannot say that the whisky furnished by the defendant was of greater potency or possessed any more poisonous ingredients than ordinary intoxicating liquor. The unfortunate results would probably have been the same if the deceased had over-indulged in a like quantity of ordinary whisky. The record is barren of any evidence that would convert the unlawful act of the defendant into the crime of manslaughter.

In more modern parlance, one might argue that the decedent’s independent acts of drinking in excess severed the causal chain between the illegal act of the provision of the substance and the actual causation of the decedent’s death.

In interviews with Reuters, several law professors pointed out the weaknesses of the prosecution’s case against the Crumbley parents. Robert Leider, of George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, said that because Ethan Crumbley was a teen, he could have formed his own criminal intent — thus arguably breaking the chain of causation prosecutors are seeking to draw to the parents. Eric Ruben, of Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law, said a prosecution which pointed out the affirmative acts of the Crumbleys would be stronger than a case which focused on what the duo did not do. Pointing out the parents’ alleged failures to act, Ruben noted, would force prosecutors to spend time proving the Crombleys had a legal duty to protect the victims. That is one extra step for the authorities to surmount.

Under Michigan law, teens and children under the age of 18 are not allowed to possess firearms in public unless they are under the supervision of someone 18 or above. The law contains some exceptions for hunting and target shooting.

Involuntary manslaughter as a common-law offense was employed in Massachusetts in 2017 to convict Michelle Carter, the then-17-year-old who urged her then-boyfriend to commit suicide. Of course, due to differing case law, the elements of the offense in the Bay State were (and are) slightly differently there than they are in the Great Lakes State.

Read the charging documents filed against the parents below:

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Aaron Keller holds a juris doctor degree from the University of New Hampshire School of Law and a broadcast journalism degree from Syracuse University. He is a former anchor and executive producer for the Law&Crime Network and is now deputy editor-in-chief for the Law&Crime website. DISCLAIMER:  This website is for general informational purposes only. You should not rely on it for legal advice. Reading this site or interacting with the author via this site does not create an attorney-client relationship. This website is not a substitute for the advice of an attorney. Speak to a competent lawyer in your jurisdiction for legal advice and representation relevant to your situation.