In a groundbreaking application of the law, a jury in Michigan found Jennifer Crumbley responsible for the murders committed by her son Ethan during a mass shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan in November 2021.
Although novel legal issues were presented, the jury asked for no readback, and spent little time deliberating. After only 11 hours, they found Jennifer Crumbley guilty of involuntary manslaughter, deciding that a mom who ignores obvious signs of mental illness in her child and gifts him a gun is criminally liable for the deaths he causes.
This is a decision with potential widespread implications. Some for the better, some for the worse
Knowing a child is mentally ill and is set to kill a lot of people is not as easy as it seems. This case put together all the hints along the way that should have led Ethan’s parents to get him immediate treatment. But hindsight is always 20-20. The reddest of the red flags only appeared on the morning of the shooting, when Ethan was brought into the guidance counselor’s office after having written on a math worksheet, “Help me,” “My life is useless,” and “Blood everywhere.” The school called his parents and recommended immediate intervention but decided Ethan could stay in school since both parents were working, and it was better, they thought, that Ethan stay with peers than be home alone.
They were worried about suicide, not homicide.
Had the school looked in his bag at that moment, they would have found the Sig Sauer pistol he used later that day to kill four students and a teacher and injure seven others.
This is a tragedy all around — a tragedy for the victims and their families, and also a tragedy for Ethan and his parents. Not only will the Crumbleys have to deal with the loss of a son (Ethan will spend the rest of his life in prison), they will also bear the weight of knowing a jury decided that something different should have been done that would have saved all those lives, and that it was up to the mother (and most likely father, who will be tried in March) to do it.
Ethan was failed on many levels for all the reasons all grown-ups screw up. We’re busy. We work every day. We love our kids but sometimes don’t, or can’t, spend the time with them they need. Many of us deny the signs of mental illness. “Not my child,” is a common refrain. “He’s just going through a phase.” And let’s face it, teenagers often present with lack of affect or the opposite — emotionalism, defiance, disrespect, hostility, and withdrawal. When do those often-common stereotypes of just-being-a-teen cross into mental illness?
The prosecutor did a good job of making Jennifer Crumbley out to be a self-absorbed creature of her own needs. They presented evidence that she had an extramarital affair and cared more about her two horses than her son. Her affect was not the most sympathetic when she testified — she wasn’t warm and fuzzy — and her attorney did her no favor in portraying her as world’s best mom instead of admitting to her shortcomings, which were there but, she should have argued, were not severe enough to amount to gross negligence (the standard here) in failing to recognize her son’s illness.
The biggest cri de coeur in the case didn’t come from anything said, texted, or overtly communicated by the son to his parents before the murders, but in a journal found afterward at the school. In that diary, Ethan talked about planning to cause bloodshed, requested mental-health help, and drew pictures of guns. “My parents won’t listen to me about help or a therapist,” he wrote. But Jennifer Crumbley testified that she never saw those entries and that Ethan never requested the help he needed.
Following the verdict, are parents at greater risk of being charged with the violent acts of their children? You bet, depending on the individual state’s laws and how the prosecution intends to wield them.
This horrendous crime probably could have been stopped, but it wasn’t. The blame doesn’t fall only on the mom, but on access to health care; the stigma connected with a mental health diagnosis, and the difficulty of knowing how far to push a teenager who’s reticent to speak.
Parents (and schools) need to be more tuned in to the tell-tale signs of mental illness and seek help right away even if the child or parent is reluctant.
With less stigma and more open information about mental illness, parents will feel more comfortable talking about their suspicions, questions, and uncertainties about their child’s behavior with trusted friends, relatives, and spiritual leaders, to name a few.
Mental health should not be relegated to some back-door, dark-closet discussion. Plenty of children (and many adults) confront mental illness every day and often need guidance to get them through that first step of therapy intake.
Generally, it’s a compilation of factors that point to signs of mental illness. When a kid starts talking about a haunted house and hasn’t slept for nights in a row and complains of hearing voices and is spending more time playing violent video games instead of eating or talking — it’s NOT time to buy him a gun, but to seek therapy (maybe as a family), whether he wants it or not. It’s also time to break all rules of privacy, go into his bedroom and look for that journal that might lay out a game plan or at least give further indications on his mental health. I say this as both a parent and a defense attorney.
Toni Messina has tried over 100 cases and has been practicing criminal law and immigration since 1990. You can follow her on Twitter: @tonitamess.