A judge in the US state of Michigan began a preliminary hearing on Tuesday to decide whether prosecutors have enough evidence to try on involuntary manslaughter charges the parents of a teenager accused of killing four students at his high school.
James and Jennifer Crumbley, who have pleaded not guilty, are accused of buying their 15-year-old son Ethan the gun he used to carry out the November 30 attack, and of ignoring signs Ethan was having violent thoughts as late as the day of the shooting.
Based on the hearing, Rochester District Court Judge Julie Nicholson will determine whether there is enough evidence against the couple to warrant a trial. Prosecutors planned to call 16 witnesses to describe their interactions with the Crumbleys and what they knew about the couple.
Gun shootings in United States schools are an ongoing challenge and the Crumbleys’ case has attracted national attention. It appears to be the first time involuntary manslaughter charges have been brought against parents of a teenage school shooter.
While other parents have been charged for deaths resulting from unsecured guns, those cases involved much younger children, according to Reuters.
Ethan Crumbley was charged with first-degree murder in the deadliest US school shooting of 2021 at Oxford High School, north of the city of Detroit in Michigan. Four students were killed. Six other students and a teacher were wounded. He has pleaded not guilty.
There were 202 cases of gunfire on school grounds resulting in 49 deaths, and 127 injuries in the US in 2021, according to the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.
Four days before the shooting, Ethan had accompanied his father to a gun shop, where James Crumbley bought a 9mm handgun, prosecutors said.
The next day his mother posted that the two of them were at a gun range “testing out his new Christmas present”, Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald said.
Prosecutors said that on the morning of the shooting, a teacher discovered drawings by Ethan Crumbley that depicted a handgun, a bullet, and a bleeding figure.
School officials then summoned the Crumbleys. The parents resisted the idea of taking their son home and did not search his backpack nor ask him about the gun, according to McDonald, the Reuters news service reported.
Survivors of the shooting have sued the school district for reckless disregard of student safety and failing to prevent the shooting.
Prosecutors detailed several other warning signs they said the parents had failed to address including Ethan searching for ammunition on his phone.
Among the witnesses called on Tuesday was Andrew Smith, the chief operating officer of a real estate company where Jennifer Crumbley worked.
He recalled during the hearing that he heard Jennifer Crumbley “screaming down the hallway” after she learned of the shooting.
She left work and subsequently texted Smith to say, “Andy, he’s going to kill himself. He must be the shooter.” Later she texted Smith concerned about losing her job, saying “Please don’t judge me for what my son did.”
The Crumbleys’ defence lawyer Mariell Lehman had asked for more time to review evidence against James and Jennifer Crumbley. She cited the difficulty of consulting with them in jail during the COVID-19 pandemic. But Judge Nicholson decided the hearing would go forward Tuesday.
The Crumbleys appeared in the courtroom shackled and in prison uniforms. They sat separated by attorneys at the defence table. Their lawyers have insisted the Crumbleys did not know that a shooting was imminent and did not make the gun easy to find at home, according to The Associated Press.
The judge warned the Crumbleys on Tuesday not to communicate with each other while court is in session after prosecutors had complained the two were gesturing to each other, according to NBC News.
“Mr and Mrs Crumbley, this is a court proceeding,” the judge told the defendants. “While maybe I’m looking away or someone else is looking away, you’re not to have communication with each other. It’s disruptive. It’s disrespectful.”
Separately, Ethan Crumbley is charged as an adult with murder and other crimes. His lawyers filed a notice of an insanity defence, which will likely freeze his case while he is examined by experts.