The parents of the Oxford school shooting suspect want their trial moved out of Oakland County — or their jurors to come from elsewhere — arguing there's no way they'll get a fair shake given all the negative publicity about their case.
Perhaps more problematic, their lawyers argue, is the devastating impact the mass killing has had on their community — where the jurors would come from.
"The school shooting of Oxford High School, quite frankly, hits too close to home for the people of Oxford and Oakland County," defense lawyers Shannon Smith and Mariell Lehman wrote in a late Monday filing, arguing James and Jennifer Crumbley deserve impartial jurors who have not been entrenched in the pain and trauma associated with the killings.
"Mr. and Mrs. Crumbley have been absolutely slaughtered in the pretrial publicity and court of public opinion even far more than (their son) who actually committed the premeditated murders," the defense lawyers wrote. "The community's reaction is viciously unfavorable to the Crumbleys."
The prosecution is partly to blame for that, the defense lawyers maintain, arguing Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald has publicly made false claims about the case and gone out of her way to taint the image of the parents.
"Mr. and Mrs. Crumbley simply want a fair trial with impartial jurors who do not have personal connections to the school shooting or its victims, and jurors who have not been influenced by the inflammatory media, particularly by stories and speeches/interviews by Prosecutor McDonald that include completely inaccurate information that the public has begun to repeat as 'facts,' " the defense lawyers wrote.
Prosecutors have accused the Crumbleys of ignoring a mentally ill son whom they allege was spiraling out of control and needed help. But instead of getting their son medical help, prosecutors have alleged, they bought him a gun and gave him easy access to it, which has become a sticking point in the case.
The defense maintains that the the gun was locked in a secure place, and that Ethan Crumbley wrote about this in his journal, in which he allegedly detailed how he would shoot up his school, and that he had to figure out where his dad hid the gun.
The defense also argues that McDonald has flip-flopped on the gun issue, publicly claiming that Ethan had easy access to the gun, but then saying on "Good Morning America" that she wasn't sure about that detail.
"Prosecutor McDonald continues to engage in media interviews and has done so since the inception of this case," the Crumbleys' lawyers argue. "The problem with the interviews and quotes is that Prosecutor McDonald has put out inaccurate and untrue information that has effectively destroyed the Crumbleys in the media. This has eliminated their chances of having a fair trial."
In a Tuesday statement to the Free Press, McDonald defended her handling of the case.
"From the moment I learned about the Oxford shooting, my focus and attention has been on holding those responsible accountable, and on advocating for our victims," the statement reads. "It is important for my office to be a transparent, reliable source of information to the public. My office will not be distracted by motions that are legally and factually deficient, and we will be filing appropriate written responses with the court."
McDonald also denied disseminating false information about the Crumbleys' case, as alleged by their lawyers.
"Our trial team has never and will never mislead the court or the public," the statement continued. "We intend to prove the allegations we’ve made against the Crumbleys beyond a reasonable doubt at trial."
Impact of an acquittal
The defense also raised another issue should Oakland County jurors decide the case: What happens if the Crumbleys are acquitted?
"Even if a jury can be picked, jurors could never return home to their loved ones after acquitting Mr. and Mrs. Crumbley, knowing that they disappointed the many victims (who) want to see as many people be held accountable as possible," the defense lawyers wrote. "There’s no question that many residents of Oakland County just lived through the worst tragedy of their lives."
The Crumbleys, who are facing involuntary manslaughter charges, also argue that the prosecution has sought to taint the jury pool by disclosing what they allege are irrelevant and prejudicial details about their personal lives. For example, the parents' lawyers maintain, prosecutors have alleged that the Crumbleys had affairs, drank heavily, kept a messy house and paid more attention to their horses than their son — all of which the defense argues is irrelevant to the case, and only meant to inflame the jurors.
The Crumbleys' lawyers have accused McDonald of using the case to advance her political career, arguing she has made too many media appearances about the case, including on "Good Morning America," CNN and local TV and radio outlets. The defense last week asked a judge to order McDonald and her team to stop publicly discussing their case, stop holding news conferences and stop "revealing evidence" secured by police.
The Crumbleys are also seeking to have numerous pieces of alleged evidence dismissed from the case, including: their son's journal — in which he detailed his plan to shoot up his school; their son's text messages to a friend, whom he allegedly confided to about his mental health issues, and Ethan's internet searches about school shootings.
Ethan, who was 15 at the time of the mass shooting, is facing first-degree murder and terrorism charges.
All three Crumbleys are being held in the Oakland County Jail pending the outcome of their cases. They have each pleaded not guilty.
"The community was rightfully shocked, outraged, devastated, terrified, and sad. Words cannot undo the pain inflicted on the victims’ families and the community justice," the Crumbleys' lawyers write in their latest filing.
But that's also why members of this community shouldn't sit on the jury, the defense argues, citing other high-profile cases where the trials were either moved, or jurors were bussed in from elsewhere.
For example, in the 2011 Florida trial of Casey Anthony, who was acquitted of murdering her 2-year-old daughter, the judge moved jurors to the trial location rather than moving the trial. Importing jurors is also cheaper than moving the case, the defense maintains, noting that it cost one California county about $18,500 to import jurors for the 38-day murder trial of Diana Haun, who was convicted of killing her lover's wife in 1997.
In comparison, the Rodney King trial, which was moved from Los Angeles County to Simi Valley, cost $250,000. And moving the 1996 California murder trial of Richard Allen Davis, who was convicted of killing 12-year-old Polly Klaas after kidnapping her from a slumber party, cost $687,000. It was moved from Sonoma County to Santa Clara County.
In the Crumbleys' case, the lawyers are not requesting that jurors come from any particular county, and are leaving it to the judge to decide where they will come from. The defense also isn't asking Oakland County Circuit Judge Cheryl Matthews to step down from the case.
In seeking a change of venue, the defense noted that 1,600 students attend the school, more than 400 people responded from 45 surrounding law enforcement agencies, and another 100-plus 911 calls were made on the day of the shooting. When you add all that up, and all the friends and families associated with those individuals, they argue, finding impartial jurors in Oakland County will be a tough feat to accomplish.
The Crumbleys' lawyers also noted that the prosecutor’s office has to notify the victims whenever there is a change to the case, which requires notifying more than 1,800 people by email.
"This case presents a unique issue based on the very large number of people in Oakland County who were affected, whether they were students, parents, teachers, law enforcement, etc.," the defense argues. "There is no way that prospective jurors who witnessed portions of the events on November 30th, or that people who know first responders to the mass murder scene, or those who have donated to the families who lost loved ones, can set aside their bias and feelings about this case. It is simply too overwhelming."
'Oxford Strong' slogan
The defense also cited the immense popularity of the "Oxford Strong" slogan as a reason for moving the trial, or getting jurors from elsewhere. Throughout the county, roads have been lined with signs and black ribbons containing the “Oxford Strong” message, and the prosecution has attended court hearings adorned in the black ribbons meant to symbolize the shooting and support for the victims, the defense notes.
This isn't criticism, the defense states, only more evidence that Oakland County is saturated with understandable grief and pain over the shooting.
'Rot in prison'
In seeking a change of venue, the Crumbleys' lawyers also scoured the comments sections of news articles, maintaining their clients have been "clearly convicted in the court of public opinion" given what they found.
Among the comments:
“Capital punishment would be nice right about now” and “How about the death penalty”
“(All) three belong in Guantanamo,” and “all three of them should save the taxpayers and off themselves.”
“(They) should be put to sleep at midnight on pay per view for 49.95 and give half the money to the family, I would support!!!”
The Crumbleys should "rot in prison" or be “put in prison until they die.”
Public groups have also started to crop up on the internet, such as "Convict the Crumbleys," the defense lawyers write, noting one commenter stated: "they’re doomed.”
Contact Tresa Baldas: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: James, Jennifer Crumbley want trial moved out of Oakland County