Commentary and Philosophy Non-Fiction posted March 29, 2024

This work has reached the exceptional level
American Criminal Law has taken a huge step.

Parents Beware

by Barry Penfold

On 15th November 2021, fifteen year old Ethan Crumbley, removed a Sig Sauer handgun from his school backpack, and started shooting. He killed four students aged from fourteen to seventeen. He also injured some further six students and teachers of the Oxford High School, about fifty kilometres north from Detroit. Ethan was sentenced to life imprisonment in an adult correctional facility.

The tragedy does not end there.

The police investigation, resulted in an unusual approach to prosecution. James and Jennifer Crumbley, Ethan's parents, became the first persons in the United States to face a manslaughter charge over a school shooting by their child. They have now both been found guilty, by separate juries, of involuntary manslaughter, and will both face sentencing on 9th April, 2024.There is clear potential that they will each face up to fifteen years in jail.

The implications of such convictions will be wide ranging in the United States and also other countries that base their laws on the old English system of law and procedure. Australia is one, as are all Commonwealth countries.

James and Jennifer Crumbley, in short, were found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, after failing to do more to stop their son from killing the four students. They, at no time, were aware of their son's intention to shoot the students. However, they were aware of the following:

1. Their son had demonstrated signs of acute mental turmoil. These issues were the topic of a meeting with the school principal and counsellors on the day of the shooting. Both James and Jennifer attended the meeting and refused to take Ethan home after the meeting. Apparently, James volunteered that they had to work harder. Four hours later the shootings took place.

2. A Sig Sauer 9mm handgun was purchased by James and last used by Jennifer and Ethan at a shooting range. However, the gun was not secured so as to prevent access by Ethan. A gun locking system purchased at the same time as the gun was found unopened. If applied to the gun it would have prevented the use of the gun.

3. Evidence of Ethan's mental issues, were made known to both Jennifer and James, when they were shown a drawing made by Ethan. It was of a gun and an injured man, and drawn on a maths assignment. He had also written various phrases such as "the thoughts won't stop. Help me. My life is useless"

The failure of Jennifer and James to take him from the school that day was undoubtedly a point that weighed heavily with the jury. Ethan remaining at school,enabled him to commit the crime. He also held the gun in his backpack at the time, a factor unknown to anybody. James discovered the gun missing when returning home after the shooting.

All in all, the District Attorney and other prosecutors determined that the charging of the parents as they did, had reasonable prospects of success considering the circumstances of the matter. Their decision was fortified by both juries that were appointed to the trials.

What does this mean to the future conduct of trials in child shooting and violence matters.? What does it now tell parents about their responsibilities when dealing with their teenage and younger children.?

While it is unlikely that such cases will become commonplace, the gate is now open for other prosecutors, across the United States, to adopt a similar approach to other matters in the future. In effect, the stage is now set for parents to be subject to much more scrutinised investigation of what they knew about their child's mental health and their securing of firearms of all types at all times.

Clearly, to ignore calls of help from children as to their mental health at any particular time, and they then perpetrate an act of violence upon others, could well lead to a charge of involuntary manslaughter. A conviction is likely to lead to some period of imprisonment and a resultant disruption to the caring of other children.

Attending to it later, or trying harder into the future, will no longer pass muster.

Many counties, will now work to pass legislation, further enshrining the responsibilities of parents towards their children. The fact that there may be some delay in such legislation will not matter. The precedent has been set by the decision. The law has carved a course to dictate to parents what they are expected to do. Prosecutors at large, will now be emboldened to explore more imaginative charges to control parental behaviour. Careful monitoring by courts and governments will need to be adopted to ensure that any such charges, do not lead to an injustice upon the parental community at large.

The 9th April will bring finality to this whole sorry saga. The sentencing of Jennifer and James Crumbley will set the mark for the range of penalty to be expected from their failure to do something. It will also begin the winds of change that are very likely to sweep through the United States and other countries when dealing with parent responsibility.

Parents beware. Take care.


America and Australia share a similar Criminal Legal System. Recent decisions as to a parents responsibility where their child has shot others is both interesting and ground breaking. Where to now?
The author has had thirty -five years experience as a lawyer in Australia. A good proportion of that time he has served as a prosecutor with the Director of Public Prosecutions Office NSW.
** Note: The facts of this matter have been obtained from various internet media reports. The author takes no responsibility for errors, omissions, or misrepresentations that may have been contained in such media reports.
Pays one point and 2 member cents.

Artwork by nikman at

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