The parents of accused Oxford High School murderer Ethan Crumbley on Saturday morning faced a judge for the first time on four counts each of involuntary manslaughter. A judge set a cash surety bond at half a million dollars for each of the parents — $1 million in total — and set strict conditions on the couple’s life if they are able to post the amount demanded.
The judge said the charges were “very, very serious” and added that “the court does have concerns about the flight risk” of James Crumbley, 45, and Jennifer Crumbley, 43 — especially considering the couple’s capture in a downtown Detroit building overnight after defense attorneys claimed the duo would turn themselves in.
Both defendants pleaded not guilty to each of the four counts they face. Jennifer Crumbley entered her pleas while struggling to control her emotions. At times, James Crumbley and two defense attorneys shook their heads in disagreement with allegations laid out by prosecutors that the couple left the alleged murder weapon unsecured and failed to heed warnings that Ethan Crumbley might be disposed to kill.
The arraignment degenerated from the typically brief and measured flow of such proceedings. It at times turned into a heated tit-for-tat between the prosecution and the two defense attorneys the Crumbley parents hired — specifically over the way the charges were filed and the way the couple was hauled into custody.
The attempts at one-upsmanship began when Jeff Rector, a pretrial services employee, noted that the couple “failed to turn themselves in to authorities” after making plans with their attorney to supposedly turn themselves in.
“Instead, they fled,” pretrial services noted bluntly at one point. “Based on the defendants’ attempt to flee prosecution, pretrial services has concerns for appearance and the safety of the public.”
Oakland County Prosecuting Attorney Karen McDonald said the couple was found in a “vacant building.” Law enforcement “searched it from top to bottom, and these two individuals were found locked somewhere in a room hiding,” the prosecutor said. (Detroit Police Chief James E. White said officers caught the couple in a “commercial building” that housed “artwork.”)
“These are not people we can be assured will return to court on their own,” McDonald continued. She then skewered the notion promulgated by the couple’s defense attorneys that they were imminently going to surrender.
“We don’t have an obligation to cooperate, and there are good reasons for that, and the events that played out showed the reasons for that,” McDonald said in response to defense claims that the prosecution was unreasonably failing to facilitate the process of securing the couple’s appearance.
“Clearly, her clients . . . did not tell her the truth” about turning themselves in, McDonald said with reference to defense attorney Shannon Smith. The prosecutor then expounded about the rancorous events of Friday and Saturday morning which eventually led to the incarceration of the Crumbley parents:
Her representation was that they wanted to turn themselves in, and they were on their way to do that. However, they didn’t turn themselves in, and we were told they were out of town, except yesterday morning they withdrew $4k from an ATM in Rochester Hills, very close to the court where they could have turned themselves in with no events and no efforts on behalf of law enforcement. Instead they fled, and they sought multiple attempts to hide their location and were eventually tracked down after they parked their car somewhere. A witness saw it.
That observation touched off the overnight search near downtown Detroit that culminated with the defendants’ arrests.
The defense presented a very different version of the events.
Smith said she texted prosecutor McDonald on Thursday evening to confirm she was representing Jennifer Crumbley. McDonald, according to Smith, responded that she could talk Friday morning. Smith said she reached out multiple times by direct text message, group text message, and by telephone to discuss the matter.
“We called the prosecutor’s office throughout the day and never got a call back,” Smith said. “We were going to make arrangements to have our clients turn ourselves in.”
But Smith said she was in a trial all day and that her co-counsel Mariell Lehman, who is representing James Crumbley, was on a plane from Florida to Michigan.
“The prosecutor’s office, instead of getting back to us in any way, decided to have a press conference and, as Ms. McDonald admitted, tried to find a way to surprise our clients and catch them off guard when it was so unnecessary,” Smith said.
The defense attorney continued by saying the Crumbleys were planning to present themselves to an entirely separate court Saturday morning — despite allegedly holing themselves up in a downtown Detroit building and setting off a manhunt:
Last night, and throughout the day, were were in contact with our clients. They were scared; they were terrified; they were not at home; they were figuring out what to do getting finances in order; and the last text messages we had with them . . . and phone calls . . . our plan was to drive to the Novi District Court this morning because arraignments were supposed to start at 8:30 for any county arraignment. We had plans to meet them at 7:30 to text the fugitive apprehension team to get to the court by 8:30 so they could be arraigned first thing. Those were plans we made and solidified, and we did not announce it because — unlike the prosecution — we weren’t attempting to make this a media — a media spectacle. This case is absolutely the saddest, most tragic, worst case imaginable. There is absolutely no doubt that our clients were absolutely going to turn themselves in. It was just a matter of logistics. All the prosecution had to do was communicate with me about it. And we tried multiple times.
Though Smith didn’t say it directly, she suggested or insinuated that the defense was attempting to avoid the throngs of reporters who descended on state’s 52nd District Court, Division 3 in Rochester Hills.
“I’m quite certain they would not have paid my office money and taken those steps if they were not going to fight these charges,” Smith later said.
“There is far more going on than what this court has been made aware of,” Smith continued at a different point in the proceeding. She said her clients would “absolutely” agree to a GPS tracker and other stipulations suggested by pretrial services; however, she requested a bond of $50,000 or perhaps as a high of $100,000 — but no more.
The judge eventually scuttled that request by agreeing with McDonald that a $500,000 cash surety bond was necessary for each of the parents.
“Our clients are going to fight these charges; our clients are just as devastated as everyone else,” Smith said. She demanded “legal soundness” and not “emotional reaction,” which she said had “driven this entire case.”
Lehman unsuccessfully argued that James Crumbley, her client, was “not a flight risk.”
“They were never fleeing prosecution,” Lehman continued, echoing Smith. “I want to make that very clear to the court.”
Lehman accused McDonald of presenting facts that were “cherry-picked to further her narrative” and of ignoring the broader facts oft he case.
“They are devastated by the events in the Oxford incident,” Lehman continued by referencing both defendants. “The facts are not what they have been presented to the court and to the public.”
“It does sound like an absolutely egregious wrongdoing on the part of Mr. and Mrs. Crumbley that they gave their child a gun and encouraged their child to do this; that’s just not the case,” the defense said at another point in the proceeding. But the prosecution never alleged Friday that the Crumbley parents ever “encouraged” Ethan to shoot.
“That gun was actually locked,” the defense continued in attempt to refute allegations levied Friday by McDonald. “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.”
The defense then extolled the need for constitutional protections for both of the parents.
McDonald retorted that “these defendants did not need my permission, and they didn’t need law enforcement permission, to go to the court and turn themselves in” at any point Friday.
The prosecutor noted that Smith was on a break from her trial between 11:45 a.m. and 2:45 p.m. yesterday and had plenty of time to facilitate the transfer.
“There’s a lot of attention here because four children were murdered and seven others were injured, and that is on the mind of every single person in this country,” McDonald continued. She noted that not all of the facts were public because she had a duty not to disclose everything prior to trial — only enough material to allege probable cause.
In an attempt to settle the spat as to whether the defendants were, indeed, on the run, the judge noted that a planned 4:00 p.m. arraignment came and went on Friday without the defendants or their attorneys ever appearing in court.
Smith countered that she entered an appearance during the day on Friday but was never notified by the court what time the arraignment was supposed to occur — so she had no idea she was supposed to show up with her clients at 4:00. Smith added that local media reports contained wildly different times for the purported and aborted arraignment on Friday.
“I just want to apologize to this court, because we don’t miss dates,” Smith said of herself and Lehman with regards to the events the previous day.
The core of the proceeding involved the court’s perfunctory reading of the charges and the solicitation of the defenants’ pleas.
“I understand,” Jennifer Crumbley said when asked, count by count, whether she knew of the charges against her. Crumbley broke down into tears as the judge read the names of the victims and noted that the defendant could serve up to 15 years in prison and pay a $7,500 fine — the maximum punishment if she is convicted convicted on each count
Crumbley at times struggled to compose herself; the judge had to ask some of the the questions several times in order to elicit a response.
“Not guilty,” Jennifer Crumbley responded to each of the counts.
The judge then turned to James Crumbley.
“I understand,” the husband and father said in response to the judge’s recitation of each count in similar fashion to the questions asked of his wife.
“Not guilty,” James similarly responded to each count.
The defendants’ attorneys both work for the same law firm. Ethics rules generally forbid the joint or dual representation of two clients by attorneys of the same firm unless the clients agree to waive the inherent conflicts of interest on the record. The rules frown upon such practices because defendants can — and oftentimes do — take legal and factual positions that are adverse to one another.
“We have spoken to both of our clients about conflicts of interest,” the defense team said. “The conflict of interest question or issue has been very much discussed and resolved. We believe at this time, ethically and professionally, we can continue on.”
The defense attorneys said attorney/client privilege prevented them from going into greater factual detail about precisely why the waiver would not be a problem for the Crumbleys. Michigan’s ethics rules required a discussion on the record about the matter; McDonald said she wasn’t sure the proffered explanation was sufficient under the rules. However, after a discussion with the two defense attorneys, with prosecutors, and with the clients, the judge accepted the joint representation.
Should the defendants secure the $1 million bail, the judge ordered them to be fitted with GPS trackers before they are released from custody. The judge also demanded that the defendants announce the scheduling of any appointments, including for work, for medical treatment, or for meetings with their attorneys. They must also abstain from using drugs or alcohol and must turn over any remaining guns or ammunition in their possession that were not previously seized by the authorities. That’s if the defendants make bond.
A probable cause conference was set for Dec. 14 at 1:15 p.m. A preliminary examination was scheduled on Dec. 22 at 9:45 a.m. Both hearings would be held in person, the judge said.
Watch the full arraignment below.
This report has been updated to contain additional detail from the arraignment.
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