Testimony begins in manslaughter trial for James Crumbley, father of Michigan school shooter

ByEric Levenson and Lauren del Valle, CNN
Thursday, March 7, 2024
Testimony begins in Crumbley trial for father of Oxford school shooter
Trial of James Crumbley, father Michigan school shooter, began Thursday with opening statements after his wife Jennifer Crumbley was convicted.

Opening statements began Thursday in the manslaughter trial of James Crumbley, the father of the teenager who killed four students at a Michigan high school in 2021, in a case that comes just weeks after his wife, Jennifer, was convicted of the same charges.

James Crumbley has pleaded not guilty to four counts of involuntary manslaughter in the November 30, 2021, mass shooting at Oxford High School, in which his son Ethan killed four students and wounded six students and a teacher. James faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

The first person to take the stand Thursday was Molly Darnell, a former Oxford High School teacher was shot and wounded by Ethan.

Darnell described her interaction with Ethan before he shot her.

"I'm turning, and I'm jumping to the right and I feel my shoulder move back," Darnell said. "It feels like I've been stung by hot water."

The jury selection process took place Tuesday and Wednesday as attorneys asked potential jurors whether they could be fair and impartial in the high-profile trial and questioned their beliefs about guns, parenting and mental health. A jury made up of six men and nine women was ultimately selected, and the judge will randomly divide the group into 12 jurors and three alternates prior to deliberations.

In bringing involuntary manslaughter charges, prosecutors have used an unusual and novel legal strategy by arguing the shooter's parents are responsible for the deaths because they purchased a gun for their son and disregarded signs of his mental health issues.

The prosecution's strategy represents an attempt to expand the scope of blame in mass shootings. While parents have previously faced liability for their child's actions - such as with neglect or firearms charges - Jennifer Crumbley's case was the first time a parent of a school shooter was held directly responsible for the killings.

The case against James Crumbley is likely to be altogether similar to the one against his wife, featuring testimony from shooting survivors, police investigators and school employees.

But there are some key differences between the two cases, particularly in each parent's firearm expertise and knowledge about Ethan's mental health problems. Plus, this is a wholly separate trial, meaning there will be a different jury, evidentiary rulings and legal strategies.

The Crumbleys' son Ethan pleaded guilty to one count of terrorism causing death, four counts of murder and 19 other charges related to the deadly rampage. He was sentenced last year to life in prison without parole. He did not testify in his mother's trial, as his attorneys said he would invoke his Fifth Amendment right to silence if called.

Jennifer Crumbley's defense and the prosecution were barred from speaking publicly about her case until the end of James Crumbley's trial.

Comparing and contrasting the Crumbley parents' cases

The basic facts and allegations, introduced as evidence at Jennifer's trial, are mostly the same for each parent.

Both Jennifer and James Crumbley gave their 15-year-old son a firearm as an early Christmas present and took him to the gun range multiple times.

According to Ethan's texts and journal entries, they both were dismissive of his mental health struggles and requests for help.

They both were made aware of Ethan's disturbing drawings on a worksheet, including a gun, a person bleeding, and the phrases "the thoughts won't stop help me," and "blood everywhere," on the morning of the shooting. And they both were present at a pivotal meeting with school counselors that same day, during which they declined to take their son home from school and did not mention his new gun or his mental health issues. Ethan had secretly hidden the gun in his backpack, and less than two hours after the meeting, he took it out and opened fire on schoolmates.

Finally, after the shooting, the two fled town, sparking a manhunt that ended in a late-night raid at a Detroit warehouse.

Yet there are a few key differences. For one, James was the parent who purchased the Sig Sauer 9mm firearm for their son at a gun range on Black Friday and was the registered owner of the firearm, according to receipts. He also was more familiar with firearms and, according to his wife, was the parent in charge of securing the home's three weapons. "It was more his thing, so I let him handle that," she testified.

Secondly, the case heavily relies on what the parents knew about Ethan's mental health issues, and several pieces of evidence from Jennifer's text messages may not apply to James. For example, Jennifer was the parent who heard from a school official the day before the shooting that Ethan had been searching on his phone for ammo. She later texted her son, "LOL I'm not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught," according to text records.

How much did James know about that and other incidents, and will there be texts to prove it?

"(Jennifer's) case lived and died on foreseeability. Was this foreseeable?" trial attorney Misty Marris, who has closely followed the cases, told CNN. "What somebody knows and when is going to be critical to that (foreseeability)."

Third, the prosecution in Jennifer's trial portrayed her as an inattentive mother, introducing evidence of her extramarital affair and her deep interest in her horses. The evidence of James' personal issues presumably will be different.

There are also potential differences in James' legal strategy and whether he testifies.

At her trial, Jennifer Crumbley's defense pushed blame onto her husband for failing to secure the firearm, on the school for failing to notify her about Ethan's behavioral issues and on her son for planning and carrying out the heinous shooting. On the stand, she dismissed texts about her son seeing hallucinations, saying they were just jokes, and explicitly said she had no regret for her actions.

"I've asked myself if I would have done anything differently, and I wouldn't have," she testified.

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ABC7 Chicago contributed to this report.