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Jennifer Crumbley and the Question of Who Should Be Held Accountable in Mass Shootings



For anyone who grew up in the ‘90s, the defining event of random, mass acts of gun violence was the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999. Two high schoolers — Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold — took a small arsenal into their school, killing 13 people and injuring 24 before taking their own lives. Until 2018, it was the deadliest school shooting in history, and it held a gravity that defined American culture in its attempts to explain what exactly had happened. 


Popular mythology assigns blame in a multitude of directions. Harris and Klebold have been posthumously subjected to a variety of armchair diagnoses, the well-known account by journalist David Cullen suggesting, based on circumstantial evidence, that the former was a psychopath and the latter a depressive. 


A common element of Columbine lore is that the boys were avenging themselves against bullies, despite not clearly targeting any particular group or individual. Others have taken Klebold’s mother to task for what is believed to be her excessively permissive and negligent parenting. Others blamed video games, rock music, alternative subcultures or whatever else is at hand. 


Despite the infamous subtitle of Cullen’s article (“At Last We Know Why the Columbine Killers Did It”), we do not know exactly why the Columbine shooters did what they did, and attempts to reduce the shooting to a single cause are emblematic of little more than the human need to find meaning in great tragedy. Assigning blame is a part of our grieving process.


Of course, assigning blame is also a principle of the maintenance of a social order. The great criminal law professor George P. Fletcher said of his subject that it is “a species of political and moral philosophy.” Further, assigning criminal blame is a different beast entirely from the casual blame game played around dinner tables, an act not only of declaring conduct morally blameworthy, but declaring it so worthy of censure that it justifies the use of state power to stop the conduct or punish its perpetrators. To do so is a responsibility few treat with the appropriate gravity. 


To say someone is responsible for a tragedy is a fundamentally different and less profound statement than to say that someone is criminally responsible for a tragedy. The demands of fairness and government restraint place all sorts of restrictions on the assignment of criminal responsibility for that very reason.


On November 30, 2021, Ethan Crumbley began shooting into the hallways of Oxford High School in Detroit, Michigan, killing 4 people and injuring 7 more. Two years later, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole. This story is not about Ethan, however. This is about his parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, the latter of whom was convicted of involuntary manslaughter on February 6, 2024. 


The case is unique; parents being held criminally responsible for the acts of school shooters is exceedingly rare. Even Sue Klebold, widely pilloried in the public consciousness for her perceived inaction in preventing Columbine, never faced criminal charges. 


The motivations for bringing the charges were complex. In part they were motivated by public outrage at the increasing frequency and deadliness of school shootings. Between Columbine and Oxford, 785 school shootings have taken place. The year of the Oxford shooting saw 188 school shootings, equal to nearly a quarter of the number that had taken place in the roughly two decades prior. The time period since Columbine has included the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting — which dethroned Columbine as the deadliest of all time — and the 2022 Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, which shattered public confidence in law enforcement as a safeguard against such shootings. 


A desire for more lasting change has been coupled with an increasing demand for accountability. The facts of this case are also somewhat singular in pointing to the responsibility of the parents. 


The weekend prior to the shooting, Ethan had purchased the gun he used in the shooting, and his mother Jennifer took him out to the shooting range to practice with it the next day. The day prior to the shooting, Ethan had been caught searching for ammunition online at school, to which Jennifer had responded “You have to learn not to get caught.” The day of the shooting, Jennifer had been informed by the school about violent imagery and prose in Ethan’s math homework — in hindsight a mental rehearsal for the shooting he would commit hours later — but she refused to intervene, ultimately leading to tragic consequences later in the day. Neither she nor her husband made any effort to secure the gun or prevent Ethan’s access to it. Jennifer’s conduct in the days leading up to the shooting was deemed sufficient to charge her with — and later convict her of — involuntary manslaughter.


Professor Fletcher’s summation of criminal homicide encapsulates not only its jurisprudential reality but the very human reaction to it: 


In the law of homicide, the focal point is neither the act nor the intent, but the fact of death. This overpowering fact is the point at which the law begins to draw the radius of liability. From this central point, the perspective is: who can be held accountable, and in what way, for the desecration of the human and divine realms? 


Involuntary manslaughter is a common law crime that throws this into sharp relief. Unlike murder, which requires evil intent, and voluntary manslaughter, which requires you to have done the act of killing yourself, involuntary manslaughter is a crime of taking or ignoring unacceptable risks to the lives of others, a definition that invites the subjectivity of the adjudicator. 


There’s hardly a question that Ethan Crumbley should be held responsible for the deaths of the people he himself gunned down, but the question asked of the jury in Jennifer Crumbley’s case is how far in time and space should that responsibility extend? 


By Crumbley’s own admission, she could have stopped the shooting and was prevented from doing so only by her own lack of attention to her son and ignorance of what the weapon he bought was capable of. Her lawyers argued that bad parenting is not a crime and that Jennifer was being used as a scapegoat. Prosecutors argued that evidence that she could have foreseen and prevented the crime but didn’t is worthy of criminal blame. The latter was persuasive to a jury.


We are at a moment in history when the fatigue and disgust at having to endure the spectacle of preventable mass murder of children is causing a societal craving to hold more people responsible for these deaths. Much of the commentary around the Crumbley verdict was rooted in fears that it would “open the floodgates” of liability, a slippery slope argument that is familiar to anyone with knowledge or experience in litigation. 


But the question of whether the verdict sets a dangerous precedent must be qualified with the recognition that the verdict represents a very real and increasingly urgent moral need. A society which accepts, or gives the appearance of accepting, that school shootings are a simple fact of life is one that regards violent death as a mere mundanity. Far from a desecration, as Professor Fletcher calls it, violent death becomes merely a figure in a grim political calculation of acceptable losses and unaccountable costs. 


Our willingness to ask ourselves the same questions asked of the jury in the Crumbley case will be determinative of our collective ability to say “no” to a culture that treats the violent death of children as simply another headline.

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