Should parents of Oxford shooter face charges? How judges picked apart both arguments during appeal

James, Jennifer Crumbley both facing 4 counts of involuntary manslaughter

Jennifer and James Crumbley at a Feb. 8, 2022, preliminary examination in Rochester Hills. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya) (Paul Sancya, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

OAKLAND COUNTY, Mich. – Prosecutors and defense lawyers appeared in the Michigan Court of Appeals on Tuesday to argue whether the charges against the parents of the Oxford High School shooter should be dismissed.

UPDATE: Appeals court affirms parents of Oxford shooter can go to trial on involuntary manslaughter charges

James and Jennifer Crumbley are both facing four counts of involuntary manslaughter after their son opened fire inside Oxford High School in November 2021, killing four students and injuring many others.

The defense argues that the charges are an overreach, and should be dismissed. On Tuesday, both sides made their case in front of three Michigan Court of Appeals judges.

NOTE: The Oxford shooter was referred to by his initials, “EC,” throughout the hearing.

Did James Crumbley miss warning signs?

“In this case, the prosecution has failed to point to a single case in which, under this context, an individual can be held criminally responsible for the calculated, planned, intentional, deliberate acts of another person,” Attorney Mariell Lehman said. “Here, EC planned, carried out, and deliberately intended to cause the deaths of the individuals in this case.”

“But our standard is awfully deferential, isn’t it?” Judge Christopher Yates asked. “It’s an abuse of discretion, to start with, and it’s a probable cause standard coming out of the preliminary examination, right?”

“Our position is, in this case, the prosecution has failed to even meet the probable cause standard, as it relates to causation, on behalf of James Crumbley,” Lehman said. “James Crumbley had no knowledge of what EC was planning--”

At this point, Judge Michael J. Riordan interjected.

“He was called over to the school that day, wasn’t he?” Riordan asked.

“He was,” Lehman said.

“He had knowledge then,” Riordan said.

“He had knowledge that there was a drawing, but had no knowledge of what EC was planning to do that day, or at any other point,” Lehman said.

“It’s certainly a warning signal, wouldn’t you say?” Riordan asked.

“It could be a warning sign that EC may have been troubled or may have been having certain thoughts, but not a warning sign that he was going to kill four other people,” Lehman said.

Did James Crumbley know son had access to gun?

“(Was it) a warning sign that maybe he had access to a gun?” Riordan asked.

“James Crumbley did not know that EC had access to that firearm,” Lehman said.

“He bought him the gun,” Riordan said.

“Well, and the first thing he did when he heard about the school shooting was go back home to see if the gun was there,” Judge Christopher Murray said. “So it certainly was on the top of his head.”

“Mr. Crumbley went home and did check to see if his firearm was there, and realized that it wasn’t,” Lehman said.

“Right,” Murray said.

Precedent from related cases

One of the arguments by the defense was that since the shooting at Oxford High School was intentional on EC’s part, it wasn’t negligence by the parents, nor something they could foresee.

The prosecution’s position is that the shooting by EC was foreseeable for the parents.

Yates asked about how this case relates to People v. Christopher Head. On Nov. 9, 2015, Head’s 9-year-old son was shot and killed by his 10-year-old daughter inside their Detroit home.

Click here to read our story about that case.

A loaded, short-barreled shotgun had been stored in a place where Head’s children were allowed to play unsupervised, officials said. Head was charged with involuntary manslaughter based on gross negligence.

He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter following a jury trial.

“In the Head case, the minor was 10 years old at the time of the shooting,” Lehman said. “There were some facts in that case regarding the storage of the firearm that were different than in this case, and again, that was an unintentional shooting that the defendant was held responsible for. In our case, we have an intentional, planned, deliberate shooting of multiple people.”

Yates argued that in the Head case, there weren’t obvious warning signs leading up to a shooting -- it was an instance of negligence. He said in the case of the Crumbley parents, there were “warning signs all over the place.”

Lehman said the Head case centered around the improper storage of a loaded firearm.

“The court kept saying it was an accidental shooting (in the Head case), and I think, generally, the rule is if it’s negligence, then it’s foreseeable, and when it’s intentional, it’s generally not,” Murray said. “But you do recognize that’s not a hard and fast rule, right? With respect to intentional acts.”

Murray said the Head case doesn’t absolve the Crumbleys just because the shooting at Oxford High School was intentional.

“There’s some maneuvering in there,” Murray said.

“I would say it is a general rule, but it is also the governing rule,” Lehman said.

Defense Attorney Shannon Smith used another case example. In that case, it was determined that when a person commits a free and deliberate shooting, they become the proximate cause of the victim’s death.

Smith said in that case, the defendant was with the person who shot the gun and also responsible for giving the gun to that person.

“(The defendant) was more involved in that set of factual circumstances than Mr. and Mrs. Crumbley were with their son, EC,” Smith argued.

“But you can’t just cut off liability at the proximate cause,” Yates said. “It’s never been my understanding that if you’re a proximate cause you’re nonetheless free because somebody is the proximate cause. You have to argue an intervening cause, right?”

Smith argued that EC is the intervening and superseding cause. She also said his age makes a difference, citing that he was old enough to write down elaborate plans in a journal that only he knew about.

“We’re talking about a person who had thoughts and problems whether people knew about them or not,” Smith said. “We had a person who put together this plan of who he was going to shoot, what order he was going to do it in, how he was going to do it, and until the prosecution can show that the parents were more a part of knowing that was the plan and that it was foreseeable he would actually take a gun and shoot other people, they’d be charged as aiders and abetters, and that’s obviously not the facts in this case.”

Debating ‘foreseeability’

“Isn’t the touchstone ‘foreseeability,’ not ‘negligence,’ as opposed to an intentional act?” Yates asked. “I mean, at the end of the day, aren’t we looking at foreseeability more than anything else to determine whether there can be criminal liability that it hatches?”

“Just having a child or a minor who may engage in strange or questionable behavior doesn’t necessarily mean that a parent or any individual can foresee that they’re going to carry out a premeditated murder of one or multiple people,” Lehman said.

“If that’s all this case was about, you might be right,” Murray said. “But that’s not all it is.”

Did James Crumbley know about mental health issues?

“It seems like it would be pretty hard for you to overcome what Judge Riordan mentioned, which is when (the parents) get to the school and they’re presented with all that information and with the background information about (EC’s) mental health situation and his calling out to the parents to try to get help, and not receiving it,” Murray said. “And his interest in guns and shooting, and then, when you add in what occurred at the school, this is not just parents dealing with a mental health issue -- it’s much more than that. Wouldn’t you agree, or no?”

“I would respectfully slightly disagree with that position,” Lehman said. “In this case, we do dispute, obviously, overall, some of the facts that were presented at the preliminary exam.”

Lehman said James Crumbley didn’t know about the text messages that EC sent to a friend about his parents failing to get him mental care.

“There’s been no information or evidence presented by the prosecution at the exam or otherwise that James Crumbley knew that there was an issue or a concern,” Lehman said.

The prosecution later agreed that there’s no evidence that the parents knew about the text messages between their son and his friend. However, prosecutors argue the texts show that EC reported hallucinations to his parents, and his father denied him going to see a doctor.

“(EC) said when he did so that defendant James Crumbley gave him some pills and told him to suck it up, and defendant Jennifer Crumbley laughed at him,” Prosecuting Attorney Joseph Shada said.

The point of the texts was not to show that the parents knew about those messages, but to establish that EC had told them about his hallucinations and asked to see a doctor, according to prosecutors.

“What about the math worksheet?” Yates asked the defense.

Yates was referring to disturbing drawings found on EC’s math homework, which had been presented on the day of the shooting.

“Both of the parents clearly understood that that was a major problem,” Yates said.

“And they went to the school,” Lehman said. “Mr. Crumbley spoke with the school counselor and the people at the school, and it was indicated to him at that time ... that there were no concerns about EC harming anyone else. The concern was that he may harm himself and that it was best that he be around other people, and that he not be alone.

“So while the math homework may have been a concern on some level, it again was not foreseeable from the drawings on that homework that he was going to later carry out the premeditated murders of those students.”

Riordan said EC had texted his mother about hallucinations in March 2021, and she told James Crumbley that their son was having hallucinations.

Lehman said in the eight months between learning of those hallucinations and the shooting, James Crumbley saw no other signs of issues with his son.

Debating causation

Riordan said he would give the benefit of the doubt that the parents weren’t aware of their son’s disturbing journal entries or videos.

He pushed back, though, against the implication that since parents have never been charged in this type of situation before that Oakland County couldn’t set precedent.

“I’m not attempting to imply that this court can’t set precedent, however, what I am saying is that it hasn’t happened in the past and shouldn’t happen now,” Lehman said. “The causation is clear. The law on causation is clear and has been well-established in our state, and in this case, there is no causation.”

“But there’s factual causation for sure, right?” Yates interjected.

“No, I would argue that there’s no factual causation, either,” Lehman said.

“You would say there’s no proximate cause?” Riordan asked.

“Yes, there’s no proximate cause,” Lehman said.

Proximate cause establishes who is liable for an action, even if that person is not the one who directly acted. In this case, the question is whether the shooting was foreseeable to the Crumbley parents, and whether their actions or inactions led to what happened.

“The ‘but for’ is so easy to meet,” Murray said. “And but for them not taking him out of the school that day, it wouldn’t have occurred that day, and that’s basically all you need to do for factual causation.”

“I would agree with that, that the ‘but for’ is easy to prove,” Lehman said. “However, I would still maintain that there is no factual causation. The ‘but for’ can be extended to a number well beyond what it should be: ‘But for’ the fact that he was born, it may never have happened.”

“Right, but they bought him the gun,” Yates insisted.

“Again, we dispute that fact,” Lehman said. “I understand that has been stated by the prosecution repeatedly, but we do dispute that fact.”

The prosecuting attorneys later said they were not aware that James Crumbley buying the gun for EC was being contested.

Parents called to school day of shooting

Yates asked Smith about what the parents learned the day they went to Oxford High School to meet with staff members about their son’s behavior.

“You have that math worksheet, which is so troubling, and they both understood that that was tremendously troubling,” Yates said. “And yet, they came into the school, true, good for them, but then they just left -- didn’t hug him, left the school, left him in for the rest of the day.”

“They also didn’t look in the backpack,” Murray said.

Smith agreed that the math sheet was troubling, but noted that EC, his parents, and school staff members left a long meeting that day convinced that EC was not a threat to others.

“If any concern, it was a suicidal concern for EC on himself,” Smith said.

“Yes, there was suicidal concern, and the counselor was worried that he may have been suicidal,” Riordan said. “At that point, wouldn’t that warrant looking in the backpack if he’s suicidal and he has access to a gun?”

“The problem is that what we’re doing is looking at this case backwards through a lens of what should have happened, what could have happened, what would have changed things, had things happened,” Smith said. “That’s not the way our law can work.”

“I don’t think that’s what we’re looking at,” Murray said. “What we’re looking at is what actions or inactions did the two defendants have that led to this shooting. We’re not second-guessing them, we’re just seeing, ‘What things did they do, or not do, that led to these events?’ Because that’s causation, right?.”

“The thing they did not do is plot and plan these murders, and hold a weapon, and shoot people in cold blood in a school,” Smith said. “That’s the main point. That’s what they did not do. Anything else they could have done -- like get him into therapy sooner, look in his backpack, go through his cellphone, go through his room, pick apart anything -- those are all things that, in hindsight, parents always wish they had done when a problem occurs or they find something like this out.”

Parent liability for actions of children

Smith brought up the topic of parent liability, and where the line should be drawn.

“The problem is that extending that kind of liability for failure to open a backpack or failure to give a hug or failure to do one of those things ends up opening this unlimited liability to every parent across the state,” Smith said. “If I have a child that goes and has sex with an underage girl, do I as the parent then become liable for criminal sexual conduct because my child used the cellphone I technically own, drove the car I technically own, and I knew my son had an affinity to like girls?”

“But that’s a different situation,” Yates said. “You usually have a relatively high mens rea requirement. This is involuntary manslaughter, which is malice-free homicide. In this sort of case, all we’re really looking for is foreseeability, aren’t we?

“We’ll grant you that you have to show factual cause and proximate cause. I think factual cause, at least in a probable cause standard, is not even worth discussing today, but in terms of proximate cause, isn’t it just simply a question of foreseeability, and as Judge Murray says, something beyond negligence can be foreseeable, and it seems to me these sorts of facts are exactly where it would be foreseeable.”

“There are so many things you could point to that could be foreseeable or not, but at the end of the day, it truly wasn’t foreseeable that EC was going to take this gun and shoot people,” Smith said. “It was not foreseeable to his parents.”

Smith said it wasn’t until after the shooting that the Crumbleys started to look back and notice missteps and things that they wished they could change.

Murray agreed that this case would be cited in future cases.

“It is a valid concern about the precedent that this will establish, because we know lawyers who are smart and crafty will use this case to argue something down the future that is not as compelling, and lead to issues that you mentioned about parental criminal responsibility for the intentional actions of their children,” Murray said.

Smith conceded that the Crumbleys made “tremendously bad decisions.” She said they were ill equipped to handle many of the situations that have been brought to light during the case.

“But criminal trials for criminal culpability are not based on whether parents make the right decisions or do the right things,” Smith said.

Yates told Smith that’s not an argument for the Court of Appeals, but perhaps for arguing the sufficiency of evidence after a trial.

Smith said even considering probable cause, she doesn’t believe the standard has been met to put the Crumbleys on trial.

Duty of Crumbleys to welfare of son

“Don’t parents have a legal duty to the welfare of their children?” Riordan asked.

Smith said they do have that duty, but it doesn’t extend to every interaction their child has with every person they encounter.

“The situation here, when they were called in on that Thursday, they knew their son had some serious issues,” Riordan said. “They had been dealing with them for eight months, with those issues. The counselor thought he was suicidal. Why not take a look in the backpack? They don’t want him to harm himself. Do the parents have a duty to keep their own child from harm?”

“If this were a case of termination of parental rights, there’s obviously different standards,” Smith said.

“Absolutely, I agree,” Riordan said.

“There’s no legal duty to look in a bag,” Smith continued. “There’s no legal duty to look in a locker. How far does that legal duty extend?”

She said school personnel didn’t look in the bag, either, even though they went and got the bag, carried it to the office, and had physical possession of it.

Riordan said the school and its workers are not the ones being charged.

No precedent for similar parent convictions

When Shada stepped to the podium for the prosecution, the judges first asked him whether there have been any cases where charges have been upheld under these circumstances.

“So, we have no case law from anywhere across the state, across the country, that supports the situation we have here, where parents are charged when their child commits an obviously intentional act?” Murray asked.

Shada admitted there is no case law on these specific facts, but said case law can be used to support the general principals.

Yates pointed out that it’s already been established that EC’s actions were intentional, based on his guilty plea.

“This intentional act was foreseeable,” Shada said. “This is a case where months before the shooting, these parents knew he had reported hallucinations. They knew he had asked to go to the doctor, and they did nothing.”

“It was eight months before the shooting, so maybe, like many parents, they hoped the situation would resolve itself,” Riordan said.

Riordan asked Shada to explain what legal duty the parents have in this type of case.

“When a parent knows of the facts and circumstances giving rise to the necessity and opportunity to exercise control over their child in order to prevent that minor child from harming another individual, then they have a legal duty to act there,” Shada said.

Riordan clarified that there’s no law requiring the parents to safely store the gun. Shada agreed.

Questioning culpability of parents

While Shada was describing some of the warning signs that the Crumbleys could have noticed in their son, Murray interjected.

“When you just summarized that evidence, I couldn’t help but think, too, someone in perhaps a more rural area who is a family of hunters who buys a 15- or 16-year-old a rifle to go deer hunting with, who, best friend moved away, grandparent died, dog died, and was having some tough times, and most kids at 15 or 16 are having a tough time with one thing or another anyway,” Murray said. “Then, all of a sudden, the hunting child goes off and shoots somebody, and all of a sudden the parents are responsible for that? That’s basically what you just summarized.”

“The key difference there, Your Honor, is it simply requires the use of ordinary care for that weapon,” Shada said. “It’s not to say nobody can have a gun, nobody can use guns as hobbies with their children.”

“But then what differentiates that, where you have some signs that your child is having some emotional trouble at school or being bullied, whatever, and they also have a gun because they enjoy using guns for hunting and sporting and whatever, and then that child goes off and kills somebody?” Murray said. “Why is that case different than what we have here?”

Shada said the level of knowledge is what differentiates this case. He said the Crumbleys knew about their son’s fascination with guns and his disturbing drawings.

“But even the school district, or the counselor, said being interested in guns is an acceptable hobby,” Riordan said. “There’s nothing wrong with being interested in guns or letting children shoot. ... What’s the precedent we’re going to set here? There are a lot of families with kids who might not be as stable as the parents would like them to be.

“What sign, what’s going to be the guidepost that we lay out for other cases to follow? Is it, the kid’s bullied at school, comes home complaining about that, lock up all the guns? Is it the kid seems down, make sure the kid doesn’t go to school? What message are we going to send with this case here?”

“The signs, or guideposts, if you will, are simply the elements of this offense,” Shada said. “Mainly, gross negligence, which requires the use of ordinary care.”

Shada said the law doesn’t prescribe one specific way ordinary care should be exercised. He said there are a number of ways the Crumbleys could have taken action to prevent the shooting.

“They could have checked to see if he had the gun they had just gifted him days earlier on him,” Shada said. “They could have simply taken him home from school. They could have adequately secured that weapon. There are a number of things that these parents could have done to exercise ordinary care in that situation, and they did none of them.”

Riordan argued that the parents only had one piece of knowledge that the school district didn’t: the text messages about the hallucinations eight months prior.

“So we’re focusing in on the day in question: that Thursday,” Riordan said. “The school district had the exact same information as the parents -- exactly the same information: kid’s distressed, kid likes guns, the math drawings, the bullets the day before, surfing the internet looking for bullets during class -- all the same information. Isn’t the school district or the personnel there equally as culpable as the parents?”

Shada pushed back on that, saying the parents had more knowledge about their son, including that he had been gifted a gun days earlier.

“There’s nothing illegal about parents buying a gun for their children,” Riordan said. “The school district even said it’s a fine hobby, just don’t bring it to school.”

“But they knew he had this gun while exhibiting those thoughts on the drawing, the words on the drawing,” Shada said. “They knew he was proficient with the gun.”

“The school district knew that he had a fondness for guns, too,” Riordan said. “The counselor knew that.”

“I would still disagree, but even if we were to assume that the school and the parents had the same level of knowledge, the school is still not the entity who purchased this gun as a gift for their son, they’re not the ones who failed to adequately secure it, but moreover, even if we were to assume that they were on the same level for all intents and purposes, that still would not preclude criminal liability for these parents,” Shada said.

Should charging EC as adult vindicate parents?

Riordan asked whether EC being charged as an adult by the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office should factor into the parents’ case.

“He’s not a child,” Riordan said. “You’re calling him an adult.”

“No, it does not (factor in), Your Honor, and that’s because the fact that he was subsequently charged as an adult does not retroactively go back and eliminate the duty that these parents had at that time to exercise care and control over this minor child,” Shada said.

“So he became an adult when he started shooting?” Riordan said.

“He didn’t become an adult,” Shada said. “He still is the minor child, and that duty still applied. However, the fact that he subsequently was charged as an adult does not go back and retroactively--”

“But it does go to the point that the general overarching rule is that intentional acts are superseding intervening cause,” Murray said. “EC’s considered an adult probably because he showed a lot of forethought in what he was doing. ... So here you have a technical adult committing first-degree murder. Why in the world doesn’t that constitute an intervening cause?”

“Because the linchpin is still foreseeability,” Shada said.

You can watch the entire hearing below.

About the Author:

Derick is the Lead Digital Editor for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.