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Video shows moment Jennifer Crumbley is found guilty of involuntary manslaughter
01:19 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Six men and six women handed down a stunning verdict in Michigan Tuesday, finding Jennifer Crumbley – whose son killed four high school students in 2021 – guilty of four involuntary manslaughter counts in a case experts say sets an important precedent of whether – and how – parents of school shooters can be held accountable.

“Every time we have seen, sadly, a school shooting, a mass shooting in this country, what do we all do? Viscerally, we ask what the parents knew,” CNN anchor and Chief Legal Analyst Laura Coates told CNN’s Brianna Keilar and Boris Sanchez Tuesday afternoon.

“This trial was about red flags, it was answering the question of, ‘What if red flags are waving right before a parent’s eyes and they do not act in a way that we want them to?’”

Prosecutors argued Crumbley was aware of her son Ethan’s deteriorating mental health in the months ahead of the shooting, pointing to several disturbing text exchanges, and accused her of gifting him a gun just days before the shooting and not properly storing it.

They also argued she failed to take any kind of action – including not mentioning the recent gun purchase – when school officials called the Crumbleys in the morning of the shooting after a teacher found Ethan’s violent drawings and urged them to take him out of school and get him immediate mental health assistance.

Ethan, who was then 15, would take a firearm out of his backpack shortly after that meeting and kill four students – Hana St. Juliana, Tate Myre, Madisyn Baldwin and Justin Shilling – at Oxford High School. He wounded seven other people.

Defense attorney Shannon Smith told jurors this case was a “very dangerous one for parents out there,” saying others could find themselves in Crumbley’s shoes, being held responsible for their child’s actions.

But legal experts told CNN while the verdict is unprecedented in that it holds a parent directly accountable in a school shooting, a verdict of this nature remains incredibly rare.

“What’s historic is that parents aren’t generally responsible for unforeseen things that their child could do,” said Janet Johnson, a Florida criminal defense attorney. “But this rose to the level where it was foreseeable.”

Setting a new precedent

Tuesday’s guilty verdict sets an important precedent on who aside from the perpetrator can be held accountable for school or mass shootings – where shooters often also die in the attack and communities are left seeking justice.

“What is sort of historic and groundbreaking about the Crumbley prosecution is, in some respects, the ways in which mass shootings have put pressure to extend criminal liability to places prosecutors hadn’t traditionally gone before,” said Eve Primus, Yale Kamisar Collegiate Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School.

But reaching a guilty verdict in cases like these can be incredibly difficult.

“I think many people have seen the verdict and have thought that this case somehow opens the floodgates to a number of additional prosecutions of parents for the acts of their minor kids,” Primus said. “And I actually don’t necessarily agree.”

Jennifer Crumbley walks into an Oakland County courtroom Tuesday before being found guilty on four counts of involuntary manslaughter in Pontiac, Michigan.

There are high requirements prosecutors must meet to prove involuntary manslaughter cases, including that the defendants were grossly negligent and that the deadly outcome could have been foreseen, she said.

“There were circumstances around Ethan Crumbley’s case that gave the prosecutor a lot of evidence that probably doesn’t exist in a lot of other cases,” Primus said.

Prosecutors alleged Crumbley knew or should have known about Ethan’s deteriorating mental health issues, pointing to a series of texts he sent her in the spring of 2021 saying there was a ghost or devil in the house and pleading for her response. Ethan also texted a friend saying he had told his parents about the hallucinations and asked for help, but his mother laughed at him.

During her testimony, Crumbley said her son’s texts about a ghost were part of an ongoing joke about their house being haunted and said the text to his friend was false.

Crumbley testified her son never asked to get help for mental health issues – a claim contradicting what Ethan wrote in his private journals.

In journal entries jurors saw, Ethan wrote he wanted help “or a therapist” but his parents wouldn’t listen.

Crumbley also testified she was aware her son was “acting depressed” in the months before the school shooting.

“The defense tried their best to instill fear in those jurors by saying, ‘This could be you, you can be Jennifer Crumbley, you can have a child that takes these heinous acts … and somehow you’ll be found culpable,’” said legal analyst and trial attorney Mercedes Colwin.

“(Smith) did all she could to instill that fear. But it couldn’t overcome the mountain of evidence against Jennifer Crumbley about the many times she could have interceded, could have assisted her child and could have certainly made sure that gun would not be in his possession on that fateful day,” Colwin added.

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 this trial.

Many legal experts saw the meeting between Ethan’s parents and school officials on the morning of the attack as key evidence that led to the verdict.

The Crumbleys were called into the school for a meeting after a teacher found violent drawings from Ethan that included a gun, a person bleeding, and the phrases “the thoughts won’t stop help me,” and “blood everywhere.”

A school counselor testified the Crumbleys declined to take their son out of school because they didn’t want to miss work. The parents did agree to take their son to a mental health professional within 48 hours, but did not mention they had recently purchased Ethan a new gun or his texts about hallucinations.

“The school administrators were handicapped by not having the knowledge that he had a gun,” Coates, the CNN legal analyst, said. “They didn’t check the school bookbag. The parents were aware that he had a gun at least in the home, did not check, did not follow up.”

Involuntary manslaughter is based not on intent, Coates explained, but on careless disregard, extreme recklessness and negligence, “where you could have prevented something and did not do so.”

What this could mean for Ethan’s father

The case tested a “core legal principle that you can’t be responsible for someone else’s acts,” University of Michigan professor Ekow Yankah said in a statement.

“But the facts are so damning – the parents did not tell the school that they had bought him a gun and he might be armed – that it almost felt like the case was meant to push that legal principle to its limit,” he said.

“I think what the jury thought was that, when faced with this many facts, (Jennifer Crumbley) had every opportunity to stop this awful day from occurring and that ultimately she eventually bears some of the responsibility.”

Ethan’s father, James, is scheduled to stand trial next month on the same charges. The outcome of his case will depend on a new set of facts and what prosecutors are able to prove he was aware of.

In her trial, Jennifer Crumbley testified her husband was responsible for safely storing the gun. But whether Ethan’s father was aware – to the same extent as Jennifer Crumbley – of his son’s mental struggles will come out at trial.

“I don’t know that we can infer that just because Jennifer Crumbley was convicted that it is more or less likely that her husband will be convicted,” Primus said.

“I do think we’ve learned from Jennifer Crumbley’s case that it is possible for the prosecutor to convince 12 people beyond a reasonable doubt that a parent can be held liable.”

CNN’s Eric Levenson and Lauren del Valle contributed to this report.