Jury begins deliberations in manslaughter case of Michigan school shooter's father, James Crumbley

ByEric Levenson and Lauren del Valle, CNN, CNNWire
Wednesday, March 13, 2024
Closing arguments in trial against James Crumbley
After closing arguments concluded Wednesday, the jury began deliberating in the manslaughter trial of James Crumbley, father of Ethan Crumbley.

PONTIAC, Mich. -- A Michigan jury began deliberating Wednesday in the manslaughter trial of James Crumbley, the father of the teenager who fatally shot four students at his high school in 2021, in a case tried a month after the shooter's mother was convicted of the same charges.

They later went home for the day, and will return at 8:30 a.m. EST.

In closing arguments, prosecutors argued Crumbley was responsible for the mass shooting because he was "grossly negligent," while the defense said the prosecution's case lacked needed evidence.

Crumbley bought a SIG Sauer 9mm gun for his son, failed to properly secure it, ignored his son's spiraling mental health and did not take "reasonable care" to prevent foreseeable danger, Oakland County Prosecuting Attorney Karen McDonald said.

"James Crumbley is not on trial for what his son did," she said. "James Crumbley is on trial for what he did and what he didn't do."

In response, defense attorney Mariell Lehman said the prosecution's case was based on "assumptions and hindsight" and asserted Crumbley simply didn't know about his son's issues or plans.

"You heard no testimony and you saw no evidence that James had any knowledge that his son was a danger to anyone," she said.

The closing arguments came more than two years after Ethan Crumbley, then 15, used the SIG Sauer 9mm weapon to kill four students and wound six students and a teacher at Oxford High School on November 30, 2021.

James Crumbley has pleaded not guilty to four counts of involuntary manslaughter and faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted. His wife, Jennifer Crumbley, was convicted of the same charges last month in a case highlighted by her own testimony in which she pushed blame onto others and expressed no regrets.

The cases against the parents test the limits of who is responsible for a mass shooting. Prosecutors aiming to expand the scope of blame in mass shootings have used an unusual and novel legal strategy by arguing the shooter's parents are responsible for the deaths because they got him a gun and disregarded signs of his mental health issues.

Parents have previously faced liability for their child's actions, such as with neglect or firearms charges. Yet Jennifer Crumbley's case was the first time a parent of a school shooter was held directly responsible for the killings.

Earlier Wednesday, the prosecution rested its case after calling 15 witnesses over the past week.

The defense called one witness, James Crumbley's sister Karen, who testified that she had spent several days with the Crumbley family in April and June 2021 and did not notice anything concerning. The defense then rested its case.

With the jury out of the room, James Crumbley declined to testify. "It is my decision to remain silent," he said.

Ethan was sentenced last year to life in prison without parole after pleading guilty to terrorism causing death, four counts of murder and 19 other related charges. He did not testify in either of his parents' trials, as his attorneys said he would invoke his Fifth Amendment right to silence.

Trial focused on how guns were secured

The case against James Crumbley has been altogether similar to the one against his wife, featuring testimony from shooting survivors, police investigators and school employees. However, there have been some key differences, as prosecutors have focused more on James' decision to purchase a firearm for his son as a gift four days before the shooting and how he stored the weapon, while featuring less evidence about his personal life and interests.

In particular, how the murder weapon was secured and how the shooter gained access to it has been a key point of contention.

Investigators who searched the home after the shooting found an empty gun case and an empty box of ammunition sitting on the parents' bed, according to photos of the search. In an interview with police, James Crumbley said the gun case had been hidden in an armoire, with the 9mm ammunition hidden under a pair of jeans.

The SIG Sauer had been sold along with a cable lock, and a detective said that cable lock was found still in its plastic packaging. No other firearm locking mechanisms were found in the home, the detective said.

"Did James ever once tell you that the SIG Sauer 9mm used to commit the Oxford high school shooting was ever locked up?" Oakland County assistant prosecutor Marc Keast asked.

"He did not," said Adam Stoyek, a detective with the Oakland County Sheriff's Office.

However, the defense has questioned whether a different locking mechanism may have been used to secure the firearm. At Jennifer Crumbley's trial, she testified that her husband secured the firearm with a cable lock and the key was stored in a beer stein in the home.

In addition, two other firearms in the home - a .22-caliber Derringer and a .22-caliber KelTec - were locked in a gun safe in the parents' bedroom dresser, but the combination to unlock the safe was "0-0-0," the default factory setting, Stoyek said. Under the safe, investigators found two empty magazines, a holster and a box of .22 caliber ammunition, he testified.

What he knew about shooter's mental health

Prosecutors have also argued James Crumbley missed clear warning signs that his son needed help.

"I have zero HELP for my mental problems and it's causing me to SHOOT UP THE F-ING SCHOOL," the shooter wrote in a journal entry. "I want help but my parents don't listen to me so I can't get any help."

He also texted a friend in April 2021 to say he was hearing people talking to him and seeing someone in the distance. "I actually asked my dad to take (me) to the Doctor yesterday but he just gave me some pills and told me to 'Suck it up,'" he wrote.

Lehman, the defense attorney, has argued there was no evidence the shooter actually asked for help and no evidence his father declined to help. "James had no idea that his son was having a hard time," she said.

Further, on the morning of the shooting, both parents were called into school to discuss Ethan's disturbing writings on a math worksheet, including the phrases "help me," "blood everywhere" and "my life is useless" and drawings of a gun and bullet.

Oxford High School counselor Shawn Hopkins testified he recommended the parents take Ethan out of school to get mental health treatment that day, but Jennifer Crumbley said they wouldn't be able to do so that day because they had work. James Crumbley did not protest, the counselor testified.

The school employees and the parents agreed to keep Ethan in class for the day, the employees testified. About two hours later, the teenager took the gun out of his backpack and opened fire.

After learning of the shooting, James Crumbley rushed home to look for the gun, according to the evidence. He then called 911 to report the gun was missing and noted his son had been in a meeting earlier that day - a call that McDonald, the prosecutor, said was "foreseeability."

Lehman disagreed: "James Crumbley had no idea what his son was capable of, he had no idea what his son was planning, and he had absolutely no idea that his son had access to those firearms."

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