Will Oxford shooter’s parents stand trial? What Michigan appeals court is considering

Defense seeks to dismiss involuntary manslaughter charges

ROCHESTER HILLS, MI - DECEMBER 14: James Crumbley and Jennifer Crumbley sit with their attorneys Shannon Smith and Mariell Lehman in 52nd District Court for a probable cause conference in the case of the Oxford High School mass shooting December 14, 2021 in Rochester Hills, Michigan. James and Jennifer Crumbley, the parents of 15 year-old Ethan Crumbley who allegedly shot 10 of his schoolmates and 1 teacher at Oxford High School, killing 4 of them, each face 4 counts of involuntary manslaughter for their alleged role. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images) (Bill Pugliano, 2021 Getty Images)

The Michigan Court of Appeals is deciding whether the parents of the Oxford High School shooter will face trial for the involuntary manslaughter charges they face in connection with the fatal mass shooting.

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

The state appeals court is hearing the case of James and Jennifer Crumbley after being ordered to do so by the Michigan Supreme Court.

A lower court had ordered the pair to go to trial on the four involuntary manslaughter charges they each face in the Nov. 30, 2021, shooting. The defense appealed the decision, seeking to get the case dismissed. The Michigan Court of Appeals initially denied the request to hear the case, until the state’s high court ordered them to.

That appeals hearing was held the morning of Tuesday, March 7, where the defense and prosecution both argued the validity of their cases. Now, the state appeals court is tasked with determining if the Crumbleys will go to trial or not.

The case against the Crumbleys

In Dec. 2021, the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office charged James and Jennifer Crumbley with four counts of involuntary manslaughter each for the deaths of four students murdered by their son: 14-year-old Hana St. Juliana; 16-year-old Tate Myre; 17-year-old Madisyn Baldwin; and 17-year-old Justin Shilling.

The prosecution accuses the parents of being grossly negligent toward their son by failing to provide proper care for him when he reported that he was having hallucinations and struggling with his mental health. Instead, the parents purchased a handgun for their son and failed to address concerns presented by school staff leading up to the shooting, prosecutors argue.

Gross negligence in Michigan means that a person willfully disregarded the results to others “that might follow from an act or failure to act,” according to the state. In this case, the Crumbley parents are accused of demonstrating a significant lack of concern about their son’s emotional state and actions and what he might do to himself or others without proper intervention from them.

Prosecutors believe James and Jennifer Crumbley knew that their son posed a danger to others, and failed to provide “ordinary care” that could have prevented the mass shooting. According to prosecutors, that ordinary care could’ve looked like the Crumbleys taking their son home from school when called in for a meeting the morning of the shooting, or looking in his backpack during that meeting for the recently purchased gun, or storing that gun securely at their home, among other things.

Michigan law doesn’t define one way in which ordinary care is exercised, prosecutors said Tuesday. Parents do a have “duty of care,” however, which is their legal obligation to exercise reasonable care for their children -- which looks like providing food, housing, schooling, health care (including mental health) and the like.

Prosecutors have argued the parents neglected their son by failing to provide him with appropriate mental health care in the months before the shooting. The defense on Tuesday agreed that the Crumbleys could have gotten their son into therapy, and said the parents weren’t well equipped to handle several factors in this case.

" ... I will concede that these parents made tremendously bad decisions,” defense attorney Shannon Smith said, in part, on Tuesday.

Still, the defense argues that the parents could not have foreseen the mass shooting based on what they knew. On the other side, prosecutors say that the parents had significant knowledge about their son’s poor mental state and his interest in guns and shooting, and could have foreseen such a tragedy.

What the judges are deciding

Criminal negligence in Michigan is defined as the “failure to use reasonable care with respect to a material element of an offense to avoid consequences that are the foreseeable outcome of the person’s conduct with respect to a material element of an offense and that threaten or harm the safety of another.”

“Foresee” is a keyword here. Whether or not the parents could have foreseen the Nov. 30, 2021, mass shooting was the largest debate in the appellate courtroom on Tuesday.

The appellate judges did not say definitively Tuesday if they believe James and Jennifer Crumbley could have foreseen the mass shooting carried out by their son. At least two of the three judges did say, however, they believe causation would be easy to prove in this case.

“... 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?” said appeals court Judge Christopher Yates.

“We’ll grant you that you have to show factual cause and proximate cause. I think factual cause, at least under probable cause standard, is not even worth discussing today,” the judge continued. “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.”

The legal issue of “negligence” is broken down into a few sub-categories, including “causation.” There are multiple types of causation, including factual and proximate.

Factual causation determines if the incident -- in this case, a mass shooting -- would have occurred without the action or inaction of the defendants. The judges seemed to agree that factual causation is obvious in this case, saying that it’d be easy to prove that if the parents had taken their son out of school the morning of the shooting, the Oxford shooting wouldn’t have happened.

Proximate causation determines if there is a cause behind the incident that can hold the defendant legally liable in that incident. Proximate cause was debated on Tuesday. The prosecution said that in the lower court’s hearing of the case, the court focused more on factual causation than on proximate causation.

The defense argues that there isn’t any argument for any causation between the Crumbley parents and the Oxford shooting.

The appeals court judges will be considering arguments made on Tuesday to decide if the parents will, in fact, be bound over for trial as the lower court had initially decided. The appeals court could overturn the lower court’s decision, choosing not to send the parents to trial at all.

A decision was not announced on Tuesday. It is unknown when exactly a decision will be made.

Video: Full hearing

You can watch the entire Tuesday hearing in the video player below.

Find: Complete Oxford High School shooting coverage here

About the Author:

Cassidy Johncox is a senior digital news editor covering stories across the spectrum, with a special focus on politics and community issues.