Michigan case revives debate over criminal responsibility of parents in school shootings

PONTIAC, Michigan – A Michigan mother, Jennifer Crumbley, has been convicted of involuntary manslaughter after her teenage son, Ethan, killed four students in a school shooting in 2021. Prosecutors argued that Michigan law compelled her to prevent her then-15-year-old son from harming others, a concept the jury agreed with.

Now 17, Ethan is serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to murder and terrorism charges in October 2022. His father, James Crumbley, will have his own involuntary manslaughter trial in March. Jennifer Crumbley’s conviction is the first of its kind in a U.S. school shooting case, and legal experts believe it could have broader implications for the criminal justice system.

Detroit-based criminal lawyer Michael Bullotta believes the jury’s manslaughter verdict was “an overreach” and that it sets a dangerous legal precedent for parents being held responsible for their children’s criminal actions. However, law professor Ekow N. Yankah believes this case will have important effects in cases we may never see.

In comparison, the mother of a six-year-old boy in Virginia who took a handgun to school and shot his teacher is serving a 21-month prison sentence and was separately sentenced to two years in prison for felony child neglect. In another case, a father in Illinois pleaded guilty to seven counts of misdemeanor felony conduct for enabling his son, who was underage, to possess a firearm. The son was later accused of killing seven people in a mass shooting.

Jennifer Crumbley’s conviction raises questions about whether parents can be held criminally responsible for the actions of their children. Gun safety advocates praised the jury, while some legal experts expressed concerns about the implications of her conviction.

University of British Columbia law professor Isabel Grant stated that a parent in Canada could face a manslaughter charge in connection with a killing carried out by their child. She explained that a parent could be held liable if their conduct was a marked and substantial departure from that of a reasonable parent in the circumstances.

In response to the real effects of Jennifer Crumbley’s conviction, Ekow N. Yankah noted that this precedent is likely to affect black and other people of color disproportionately in the criminal justice system. He believes that anytime new tools are added to criminal law, they are often aimed at the most politically vulnerable.

The case could have unseen repercussions, as it may become a threat used by prosecutors to convince defendants to take a guilty plea. A study from the American Bar Association found that nearly 98% of convictions were the result of guilty pleas. This raises concerns about the potential impact of this precedent on vulnerable communities.

The conviction of Jennifer Crumbley has sparked national discussion and legal debate about parental responsibility and the broader implications for the criminal justice system. As the first-of-its-kind verdict in a U.S. school shooting case, the case sets a challenging legal precedent that will likely be closely watched in the legal community for years to come.