Michigan mother found responsible for son's actions in high school mass shooting: how we got here and what's next

In a groundbreaking verdict, Michigan jurors found Jennifer Crumbley responsible for her teenage son’s actions when he opened fire at his high school in 2021, killing four students. Jennifer Crumbley was found guilty on all four counts of involuntary manslaughter, one for each student who was killed by her son, Ethan Crumbley, at Oxford High School on Nov. 30, 2021.

She is the first parent in the U.S. to be found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in connection to a mass shooting committed by their child. Prosecutors accused Jennifer and her husband, James Crumbley, of making the gun accessible to their son, ignoring his mental health needs and declining to take him home from school after his violent drawings were discovered on the day of the attack.

Gun control advocates praised the jury’s decision. “Today’s verdict underscores the important responsibility of parents and gun owners in preventing children from having unsupervised access to deadly weapons," Nick Suplina, senior vice president for law and policy at Everytown for Gun Safety, said in a statement. “This decision is an important step forward in ensuring accountability and, hopefully, preventing future tragedies."

Ethan, who was 15 years old at the time of the shooting, was charged as an adult and pleaded guilty to murder, terrorism and other crimes in the killing of students Tate Myre, Hana St. Juliana, Madisyn Baldwin, and Justin Shilling.

Shown left to right, Tate Myre, Hana St. Juliana, Madisyn Baldwin and Justin Shilling
From left, Oxford High School shooting victims Tate Myre, Hana St. Juliana, Madisyn Baldwin and Justin Shilling (via X, Facebook, courtesy of the family(2))

Ethan was sentenced to life in prison without parole last December. He did not testify in his mother’s trial.

Jennifer’s husband, James Crumbley, is also charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter and will be tried separately. He has pleaded not guilty to the four charges.

Why are these trials so significant?

The separate trials of Jennifer and James Crumbley test the limits of who is responsible for a mass shooting. In this case, a jury found that Jennifer Crumbley was responsible.

While parents have previously faced criminal penalties following shootings carried out by their children, charges in those cases usually relate to child neglect or as a failure to keep a firearm locked up. For example, a Virginia mother was sentenced to two years in prison on a state charge of felony child neglect after her 6-year-old son shot his teacher.

But the Crumbley’s cases are different because the prosecution is holding both parents responsible for the killings of the four victims, claiming “gross negligence” for the actions they did not take to prevent their son from carrying out the mass shooting.

“That’s why this is a tricky case because a lot of it is based on omission, not action,” trial attorney Misty Marris told CNN. “A lot of criminal culpability is because you did something, not because you failed to do something. That’s why this legal argument is so novel and new and actually pretty groundbreaking.”

What were some of the key questions raised in Jennifer Crumbley’s trial?

Jennifer Crumbley
Jennifer Crumbley arrives in court on Monday. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

How did her son have access to the firearm?

The prosecution accused Jennifer of gifting her son a gun and failing to properly store it. Just days before the school shooting on Nov. 27, 2021, surveillance video shows Jennifer and Ethan taking turns shooting at a gun range. Jennifer also documented the day on social media writing, “Mom & son day testing out his new Xmas present.”

In Jennifer’s testimony last week, she said that making sure the gun was stored safely was her husband’s responsibility and “it was more his thing.”

Was she aware of her son’s mental health issues?

The prosecution alleged Jennifer should have known about Ethan’s mental health issues. In the spring of 2021, Ethan pleaded for his mother to respond to a series of text messages in which he said there was a ghost or devil in the house. In Jennifer’s testimony last week, she said the texts about the ghosts were just part of an ongoing joke that their house was haunted and Ethan was just “messing around.”

Ethan also texted a friend that said he asked his parents for help after experiencing hallucinations, but his mother just laughed at him. Jennifer testified that the text was wrong and that Ethan never actually asked them for help.

How did she respond to a school counselor’s concerns the day of the shooting?

On the day of the shooting, a teacher found a violent drawing by Ethan showing a gun and a person bleeding. Phrases like “the thoughts won’t stop help me,” “blood everywhere” and “my life is useless” were written on the drawing. The Crumbleys were called into the school for a meeting that day. A school counselor testified he recommended they take Ethan home to get immediate mental health treatment. But Jennifer and James declined to take him home because they didn’t want to miss work. Shortly after the meeting, their son opened fire in the school.

Jennifer testified that while she could have taken Ethan home that day, she didn’t think her son was capable of that type of violence. Two years later, she told the jury that she wouldn’t have done anything differently.

What’s next?

Jennifer Crumbley’s sentencing is scheduled for April 9 and she remains held on bond. Each count of involuntary manslaughter carries a maximum penalty of 15 years, which would run concurrently.

James Crumbley, who has a different attorney, will face his own trial on four charges of involuntary manslaughter, set to begin on March 5.