Mother’s Conviction in Son’s School Shooting Sets a Troubling Precedent, BU LAW Expert Says
Angelo Petrigh says that while Jennifer Crumbley’s verdict may make parents think twice about guns at home, he’s still “skeptical of using criminalization to solve society’s problems”
This week’s guilty verdict against Jennifer Crumbley, the mother of an Oxford, Mich., teenager who committed the deadliest school shooting in the state’s history, may have a “chilling effect” on parents who have guns in their homes, says Angelo Petrigh, a clinical associate professor of law at the Boston University School of Law.
For people concerned about decreasing the incidences of gun violence, that chill may well be a good thing—but as a former public defender, Petrigh says, he’s “skeptical of using criminalization to solve society’s problems,” and he worries about the trickle-down effects such criminalization may have on the country’s already vulnerable—and most often criminalized—populations.
Jennifer Crumbley was convicted on four counts of involuntary manslaughter on Tuesday, the first time in the United States that a parent has been found guilty of such a crime after their child committed a mass school shooting.
She was charged after her son, Ethan, carried out a school shooting in 2021 that killed four of his classmates and injured seven others. Ethan, who was 15 at the time of the shooting and has since pleaded guilty to charges related to it, used a handgun that his parents—Jennifer and James—purchased for him and taught him how to use.
James Crumbley will be tried separately in March, and based on Jennifer Crumbley’s conviction, Petrigh says, he wouldn’t be surprised if James’ attorneys try to resolve his case with a plea deal.
Prosecutors in Jennifer’s case presented particularly compelling evidence that she should have been aware of her son’s troubled mental state, such as text messages and the accounts of a meeting with school officials just hours before the shooting. The raft of evidence helped them clear the high bar for proving her crime, Petrigh says.
Prosecutors presented text messages where Ethan expressed paranoia and journal entries he wrote saying he had had no help for his mental health issues. On the morning of the shooting, Jennifer and James Crumbley were called to Ethan’s school to discuss a disturbing drawing he’d made, and school counselors testified at the trial that they told the Crumbleys that Ethan needed to be seen by a mental health professional immediately. The counselors also testified that they didn’t know that Ethan had access to a gun. The Crumbleys left the school promising to get their son help soon. A few hours later, Ethan opened fire.
“There was probably more evidence in this case of criminal negligence than there normally is,” Petrigh says. “If you believe the prosecution’s evidence, there were a lot of red flags that the parents ignored.”
Still, it’s a “remarkable case to have brought at all,” he says, and he anticipates that even prosecutors who may have less glaring evidence will use a similar tactic in the wake of other school shootings. And that may not be a good thing.
“I agree that if this makes people take greater care around firearms, how could that be a bad thing,” Petrigh says. “But I’ve unfortunately seen well-intentioned laws and prosecutions result in the over-prosecution of the most vulnerable people, which overwhelmingly are people who have fewer resources.
“If this ends up leading more prosecutors offices to seek convictions, it’s not going to be cases with this remarkably high burden [such as Jennifer Crumbley’s], it’s going to be cases that are much closer to what we would say are really just unfortunate accidents. But the people that don’t get the benefit of the doubt are people with less political power and less means.”