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Mich. case to decide if parents can be criminally responsible for a child's actions


Jury selection is scheduled to begin today in a Michigan case that could set a precedent over whether a parent can be held criminally responsible for the actions of their child.


About two years ago, a student at Oxford High School in Michigan opened fire. Here are some numbers that define this incident. The student was 15 years old. He killed four fellow students. He wounded six other students and one teacher. The teenager was charged, and so were his parents, with four counts each of involuntary manslaughter.

MARTÍNEZ: WDET's Quinn Klinefelter has been following the case. Quinn, the shooter in this case pleaded guilty. He was sentenced recently to life without parole. So why did prosecutors charge his parents, as well?

QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: Well, the parents are Jennifer and James Crumbley, and they're being tried separately. Jennifer's trial is first. But they both face, as you mentioned, charges of involuntary manslaughter. In essence, prosecutors say the Crumbleys could have stopped the massacre if they had taken certain steps a reasonable person would have done. The prosecution alleges the Crumbleys were grossly negligent by ignoring their son's pleas for mental health counseling and instead buying him a handgun as an early Christmas present. The Crumbleys also refused to take their son home from Oxford High the day of the murders, even after school officials said they found drawings he'd made of a person shot by the same kind of gun they'd gifted him with phrases like, help me and blood everywhere. The prosecution says the Crumbleys did not even mention their son might have access to a gun, let alone request that the school check to see if he had it with him.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, so the Crumbleys are being accused of a lot. How are they responding?

KLINEFELTER: Defense attorneys argue the Crumbleys' son pulled the trigger, not the parents. And the Crumbleys had no way of knowing that he planned a mass shooting. And they say evidence that their son wanted mental help comes from text messages to his friend, not something that the parents would've seen.

MARTÍNEZ: But isn't one of the key arguments from prosecutors is that access to the weapon used during the shooting - it's all about that?

KLINEFELTER: Yeah. The prosecution claims the Crumbleys did not adequately secure the gun so their son could not gain access to it. But when the son, Ethan Crumbley, pleaded guilty to the killings in 2022, prosecutors specifically questioned him about that.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Is it true on November the 30, 2021, when you obtained the firearm, it was not kept in a locked container or a safe?

ETHAN CRUMBLEY: Yes. It was not locked.

KLINEFELTER: Crumbley may not make that assertion publicly again, however. His court-appointed attorneys appealed his life without parole sentence and advised him not to testify in either of his parents' trials.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, we're hearing from legal experts who say this case could actually set a national precedent. In what way?

KLINEFELTER: Well, typically, parents are not charged. This case, however, involves a mass school shooting and severe charges of involuntary manslaughter. We did see another instance of a parent being charged in Illinois, where last year, a father pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges after his son killed people during a Fourth of July parade. That case revolved around how the son obtained a license for a gun, not the kind of involuntary manslaughter charges made against the Crumbleys.

MARTÍNEZ: One other thing, Quinn - the Crumbley parents - they're being tried separately. Why separately?

KLINEFELTER: Because the couple requested it, they had presented a united front until recently. And they waited several days initially before turning themselves in to the authorities. Now their attorneys argue in court filings that new evidence has come to light that would pit one parent against the other. And if either is convicted, they could face a maximum of 15 years in prison.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Quinn Klinefelter from WDET in Detroit. Quinn, thank you.

KLINEFELTER: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHIEF.'S "YESTERDAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Quinn Klinefelter