February 9th, 2024

Can a Parent of a School Shooter Be Convicted of Involuntary Manslaughter in Pennsylvania?

On February 6, 2024, a Michigan jury convicted a school shooter’s mother, Jennifer Crumbley, of involuntary manslaughter for her purported involvement in the death of four students in 2021. According to the prosecution, Ms. Crumbley had a duty under Michigan law to prevent her 15-year-old son, Ethan Crumbley, from harming others. Specifically, she was accused of failing to secure a gun and ammunition at home and failing to get help for her son’s mental health.

At Gross McGinley, LLP, our criminal defense attorneys provide legal representation for clients in Pennsylvania. Here, I will explain why this guilty verdict may not have been likely under Pennsylvania law.

What Happened the Day of the Michigan School Shooting?

On November 30, 2021, school staff members at Oxford High School in Rochester Hills, Michigan, grew concerned about a violent picture of a gun, bullet, and wounded man drawn on Ethan Crumbley’s math assignment. Disturbing phrases such as “blood everywhere” and “the thoughts won’t stop, help me,” also were written on the page.

Ethan Crumbley’s parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, were called to the school for a conference with counselor Shawn Hopkins, who had received emails from several teachers who were concerned about Ethan’s emotional and mental health. At the meeting, concerns about Ethan’s mental health were discussed, but his parents did not take him home. Nobody checked the backpack where he had hidden a 9 mm Sig Sauer handgun that James Crumbley had purchased for his son a few days earlier.

Ethan shot 10 students and a teacher later that day. As a result, four students died. In September of 2023, Ethan Crumbley pleaded guilty to 24 charges, including four counts of first-degree premeditated murder. He is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

James and Jennifer Crumbley Face Involuntary Manslaughter Charges

On December 3, 2021, Oakland County prosecutors charged James and Jennifer Crumbley with involuntary manslaughter for failing to secure the handgun used by the school shooter. They fled Rochester Hills and failed to appear for their arraignment. They were caught and arrested in Detroit, MI, on December 4.

Jennifer Crumbley has since been convicted of involuntary manslaughter, which is the first time a jury in the United States has found a parent guilty of manslaughter as a result of their child’s school shooting. James Crumbley’s trial date is set for March 5, 2024.

Voluntary Manslaughter Vs. Involuntary Manslaughter

Both involuntary and voluntary manslaughter are forms of homicide but differ in terms of the intent and circumstances surrounding the act. Specific statutory definitions of these charges vary according to the criminal laws of each state. Generally, voluntary manslaughter occurs when a defendant intentionally kills another person in the heat of passion or under mitigating circumstances that preclude the crime from being charged as murder.

Involuntary manslaughter occurs when a defendant unintentionally causes the death of another person due to negligent or reckless behavior. For example, a driver who causes a fatal accident while driving under the influence of alcohol may be charged with involuntary manslaughter if it is determined that their reckless or negligent actions led to the death of another person.

Could Jennifer Crumbley Be Convicted of Involuntary Manslaughter in Pennsylvania?

As a defense attorney, I question whether Ms. Crumbley’s conduct could be charged as “involuntary manslaughter” under Pennsylvania law. This is because Ms. Crumbley’s alleged criminality relates to her inaction rather than action. Thus, her conduct likely falls outside the scope of “involuntary manslaughter” as defined in Pennsylvania.

A review of Pennsylvania criminal law on involuntary manslaughter is instructive. This crime is defined under 18 Pa.C.S. § 2504 as follows:

“A person is guilty of involuntary manslaughter when as a direct result of the doing of an unlawful act in a reckless or grossly negligent manner, or the doing of a lawful act in a reckless or grossly negligent manner, he causes the death of another person.”

The key term is “doing,” which implies action rather than inaction. Jennifer Crumbley was convicted under Michigan law for her failure to act, i.e., failing to prevent her child from harming others. This amounts to inaction, which would not qualify as “doing” as that term is normally understood.

Every citizen has a right to know beforehand whether their conduct is or is not criminal in nature. Criminal statutes are narrowly interpreted in favor of non-criminality. In Pennsylvania, the statutory definition of “involuntary manslaughter” does not appear to cover the kind of inaction at issue in the Michigan case. Thus, in my opinion, the validity of the Michigan verdict under Pennsylvania criminal law is doubtful.

Contact a Criminal Defense Lawyer in Pennsylvania to Learn More

At Gross McGinley, LLP, our criminal defense attorneys provide compassionate legal representation without judgment for people charged with violent crimes and other criminal offenses in Pennsylvania. Our values of respect, integrity, and collaboration have helped us build a solid reputation in the local legal community. If you or a loved one is facing involuntary manslaughter charges or has been charged with another crime, we can help. Call us at 610-820-5450 or contact us to schedule a consultation with a defense attorney today.

The content found in this resource is for informational reference use only and is not considered legal advice. Laws at all levels of government change frequently and the information found here may be or become outdated. It is recommended to consult your attorney for the most up-to-date information regarding current laws and legal matters.