PONTIAC, Mich. (FOX 2) - The case against James and Jennifer Crumbley is a novel one and it comes down to one question: if accused Oxford High School shooter Ethan Crumbley is guilty, are the parents also responsible?
When James and Jennifer Crumbley go to trial, which is expected to be sometime this year, it's possible that the defense or even the prosecution could call their son to testify.
According to FOX 2 legal analyst Charlie Langton, the case against James and Jennifer is novel as they're both being charged for a crime their child allegedly committed. Even if the Crumbley parents were not great parents as the Oakland County prosecutor argued in court, are the liable for the murder of four teenagers?
"The issue for the jury ultimately will be, did the parents' bad actions, negligence - gross negligence cause the murder?" Langton said.
He clarified further that it's not about whether their actions contributed to the murder - but whether they can be directly linked.
The legal term is causation. According to Langton, attorneys say there is not a causation between buying the gun, leaving it unloaded, talking about weapons, or having knowledge of Ethan's bad thoughts AND the ultimate act of the high school shooting.
In other words, the prosecutor's challenge is to prove that James and Jennifer can be directly linked to the crime. A jury will ultimately have to decide if those actions caused the murders.
While difficult, it's not impossible. Langton said prosecutor Karen McDonald will argue that the parents were so grossly negligent that they should have known their son would kill.
He said she'll cite the meeting that happened the morning of Nov. 30, just hours before the shooting, for her reasoning that the parents should have known about Ethan's alleged capacity.
Using Ethan Crumbley to make their case
Another possible argument that James and Jennifer's defense team could make is regarding Ethan's mental capacity, especially if Ethan is determined to be mentally unfit for trial.
According to Langton, if Ethan is determined to be insane, the defense could call him to testify that he was not in the right mind, so his parents were not responsible. Defense attorneys could also argue that Ethan allegedly did what he did without the parents' knowledge.
However, if that were the case, the prosecution could argue that his parents should have known about Ethan's mental health.
Ethan would qualify as a witness to testify, despite being their child, and both the prosecution or the defense could call on him.
James and Jennifer could not be called by the prosecution to testify as they're being tried together. Even if they were being tried separately, they could not be called by the prosecution to testify against each other as they're protected under spousal privilege, which shields communication made in confidence during a marriage.
What's next for the James and Jennifer Crumbley?
The preliminary hearing for James and Jennifer Crumbley wrapped up on Feb. 24 and both were ordered to stand trial on involuntary manslaughter charges. During the two days of hearings, evidence was presented regarding text messages between the parents and Ethan, his journal, and more.
The two were bound over and had their arraignment waived while the case was moved into circuit court. The attorneys are due back for a pre-trial hearing on March 15.
Langton said this is a procedural hearing and is more of a check-in to see how both sides are progressing in terms of trail.
A trial date has not been set.
Why did James and Jennifer Crumbley's case move?
When someone is arrested, they're first arraigned in circuit court where the crime happened. The circuit court judge, through a preliminary exam, determines if there is enough evidence to send the case to trial in a district court.
According to Langton, 99% of the time, cases are bound over for trial in district court
If a suspect is charged with a felony, the case is moved to district court where a new judge is assigned and they must be arraigned again. Suspects can choose to waive that arraignment, which is what happened with the Crumbley parents.
When is the trial for James and Jennifer Crumbley?
Langton said he expects the trial of the Crumbley parents to happen towards the end of 2022.
They're both being held in custody on a $500,000 bond and, because they're both detained, they are deemed a priority.
When it comes to scheduling on the court's docket, suspects in custody for any crimes are given priority over suspects who are out on bond.
The strategies that either legal team uses may depend on the timing of the trials for Ethan or James and Jennifer. Their case strategies may also change if Ethan chooses to take a plea deal.
Ethan could testify that his parents had no involvement or the prosecution could call him to support their case. Langton said that is unlikely due to his age.