A Michigan appeals court has ruled that the parents of a teenager responsible for a school shooting in the United States could be tried for involuntary manslaughter, paving the way for a groundbreaking case.
In a unanimous opinion, the three-judge appeals court called for a full trial of James and Jennifer Crumbley, whose son Ethan Crumbley opened fire at Oxford High School in 2021, killing four and injuring seven.
The three judges – Christopher Murray, Michael Riordan and Christopher Yates – wrote in their decision that Ethan’s “acts were reasonably foreseeable”. They also determined that his parents’ “doings and omissions were inexorably intertwined” with the murders he committed.
The judges cited “visual evidence” that Ethan intended to commit violence with the weapon his parents bought for him, including drawings depicting firearms, decapitated birds and human suffering.
On the day of the shooting, several illustrations were drawn on a spreadsheet with the words, “Thoughts don’t stop. Help me.”
“The morning of the shooting, EC (Ethan Crumbley) took a photograph of a body that appeared to have two bullet holes in the torso, apparently bleeding from it,” Riordan told the court.
The judge noted that the gun depicted in the sketch resembled the firearm his parents had “very recently gifted” him. His parents had been called to the school hours before the shooting to discuss the photo, but neither the school nor the parents demanded that Ethan be taken home.
Without the defendants’ “informed decision to leave EC at school, these murders would not have happened that day,” the judges concluded.
Their decision is likely to test the boundaries of negligence and liability in situations where minors commit violent crimes. Ethan, now 16, pleaded guilty to 24 state charges in October, including first-degree murder and “terrorism.”
He may be called to testify at his parents’ trial.
On November 26, 2021, James Cumbley legally purchased a 9mm SIG Sauer pistol that Jennifer Cumbley would later describe as a “Christmas present” for their then 15-year-old son.
The following Monday, Ethan was caught researching ammunition on his phone during class at Oxford High School near Detroit, where he was a sophomore. A school official left a voicemail about the incident on Jennifer’s phone.
Jennifer, who had taken Ethan to a shooting range the weekend before, responded by striking up a text conversation with her son in which she told him, “I’m not mad. I’m not mad.” You have to learn not to get caught.”
That Friday, Ethan opened fire at the high school after packing the gun and 50 rounds of ammunition in his backpack.
Prosecutors have alleged that James and Jennifer Cumbley shared responsibility for Ethan’s actions, writing in a lawsuit, “They created an environment where their son’s violent tendencies flourished.”
The appeals court reiterated that assessment, writing on Thursday that “a reasonable fact-seeker could conclude” that the defendants’ “decision to buy their mentally disturbed son a gun” led to the shooting.
The court decision referred to cases where Ethan described hallucinations to his parents in text messages, including the belief that he was haunted by a demon. Ethan told a friend that his parents rejected his request to see a doctor and instead told him to “suck it up”.
The judges also cited the “failure of the parents to secure the gun properly”.
An active shooter alert was sent to the parents on the day of the attack, prompting James Cumbley to go home and discover the firearm had been taken. Just over half an hour after the attack, he called emergency services to express concern that his son could be the shooter.
In the days following the shooting, prosecutors filed involuntary manslaughter charges against the parents, and law enforcement launched a manhunt to apprehend them, eventually discovering them in Detroit.
Lawyers for the parents have denied that their clients are guilty of manslaughter. They are expected to request that the Michigan Supreme Court review the case.
“Based on the drawings on that (math) homework, it was not foreseeable that he would later commit the premeditated murders of those students,” lawyer Mariell Lehman told the court earlier.
In Thursday’s decision, the appeals court acknowledged that it “shares the defendants’ concern about the possibility that this decision will be applied in the future” with other parents whose children commit acts of violence.
But it ultimately decided that the Cumbley case involved “uniquely troubling facts” that merited consideration of a full jury trial.
“Whether a jury actually finds that causation has been proven after a full trial, where the record will almost certainly be more extensive — including defendants’ evidence — is a different matter from what we decide today,” the judges wrote.