The Volokh Conspiracy

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Parents of Oxford High School Shooter Can Be Prosecuted for Negligent Homicide,

based on their not securing the gun they gave him and other things, given the evidence they had of his mental state.


From today's Michigan Court of Appeals decision in People v. Crumbley, written by Presiding Judge Christopher Murray and joined by Judges Michael Riordan & Christopher Yates:

Defendants James and Jennifer Crumbley are the parents of EC, who shot and killed four fellow students and injured many others at Oxford High School on November 30, 2021. EC pled guilty to four charges of first-degree murder. In these proceedings, the state has charged defendants with four counts of involuntary manslaughter related to those same deaths….

The court discusses in detail the facts that the parents knew about EC's statements "that reflected instability in his mental health," and went on to conclude that, given all the evidence, their prosecution can go forward (recall that they haven't yet been tried or convicted of anything):

Causation is, of course, "an element of involuntary manslaughter." … "[I]n the criminal law context, the term 'cause' has acquired a unique, technical meaning. Specifically, the term and concept have two parts: factual causation and proximate causation." "Factual causation exists if a finder of fact determines that 'but for' defendant's conduct the result would not have occurred."

"The existence of factual causation alone, however, will not support the imposition of criminal liability. Proximate causation must also be established." Concerns arise regarding "whether the defendant's conduct was the proximate or legal cause of the decedent's death," when "the death is so remote from the defendant's conduct that it would be unjust to permit conviction." In other words, proximate causation "is a legal construct designed to prevent criminal liability from attaching when the result of the defendant's conduct is viewed as too remote or unnatural." Importantly, under the criminal law, there can be more than one cause of harm, and a defendant's acts need only be a contributory cause that was a substantial factor in producing the harm ….

"For a defendant's conduct to be regarded as a proximate cause, the victim's injury must be a 'direct and natural result' of the defendant's actions." … "[A]n act of God or the gross negligence or intentional misconduct by the victim or a third party will generally be considered a superseding cause [that prevents the defendant's actions from being treated as proximate cause -EV] … ." Nevertheless, "[t]he linchpin in the superseding cause analysis [] is whether the intervening cause was foreseeable based on an objective standard of reasonableness." "If it was reasonably foreseeable, then the defendant's conduct will be considered a proximate cause." "If, however, the intervening act by the victim or a third party was not reasonably foreseeable—e.g., gross negligence or intentional misconduct—then generally the causal link is severed and the defendant's conduct is not regarded as a proximate cause of the victim's injury or death." …

[T]he relevant facts revealed that, prior to arriving at the school on November 30, 2021: (1) defendants were aware that EC had been repeatedly experiencing significant episodes of hallucinations and/or extreme paranoia; (2) EC was in a distressed mental state because of the loss of his grandparent and the family dog, and the departure of his best friend; (3) EC himself realized his poor mental state such that he requested defendants to help him obtain medical assistance; (4) despite defendants' knowledge of EC's mental state, they purchased him a handgun which was readily accessible to EC; (5) on November 29, the day before the shootings, EC was researching bullets while in school; and (6) during first hour of class on November 30, EC watched a video involving a shooting, and during second hour drew pictures of a bullet, a gun resembling the SIG Sauer, a person bleeding from bullet holes, and wrote "Blood everywhere," "The thoughts won't stop Help me," "My life is useless," and "The world is dead." Defendants were also presented with the significant modifications EC made to that worksheet, where he clearly intended to portray a different, happier message about the school and himself.

Despite their knowledge of all of these circumstances, when given the option to help EC and take him out of school, defendants did nothing. They did not, contrary to the recommendations of Hopkins, take EC home and get him immediate medical help. Nor, when they decided to leave him at school, did they tell school officials about EC's history of mental health issues nor explain to them that EC had access to a gun similar to the one he drew on the math worksheet. Defendants neither asked EC if he had the gun with him nor did they look in his backpack. And, when they left the school, defendants did not go home and ensure EC had not taken the gun.

Given all those facts, it was not an abuse of discretion to conclude that there was probable cause to believe that a juror could conclude that a reasonably foreseeable outcome of defendants' alleged gross negligence was EC committing a shooting that day. One of the few reasonably foreseeable outcomes of failing to secure the firearm that was gifted to EC was that it would be accessible to EC and that, in his mentally deteriorated condition, he might use it in unlawful ways. In light of those foreseeable events, when presented with what he had just drawn, written, and viewed that morning, a reasonable juror could conclude that it was foreseeable that EC possessed his recently gifted gun and intended to use it that day. As a result, a reasonable juror could conclude that EC's intervening acts were not a superseding cause of the murders.

In fact, given the uniqueness of the connection between EC and defendants, we question whether EC's acts are properly considered as intervening causes capable of superseding defendants' criminal responsibility…. Defendants' actions and inactions were inexorably intertwined with EC's actions, i.e., with the intervening cause. This connection exists not simply because of the parent-child relationship but also because of the facts showing that defendants were actively involved in EC's mental state remaining untreated, that they provided him with the weapon used to kill the victims, and that they refused to remove him from the situation that led directly to the shootings. In this circumstance, a reasonable juror could conclude that defendants' "conduct 'increase[d] the foreseeable risk of a particular harm occurring through … a second actor."

{We acknowledge defendants' argument that no parent could reasonably foresee their child committing a mass shooting. But these issues are based on the facts and what is reasonably foreseeable under an objective standard, and the circumstances defendants were presented with on November 30, 2021, provided a heightened set of warnings that could lead a jury to find causation. Additionally, with respect to foreseeability, more relevant than the number of people shot is the foreseeability that EC would shoot someone that day.}

Finally, we share defendants' concern about the potential for this decision to be applied in the future to parents whose situation viz-a-viz their child's intentional conduct is not as closely tied together, and/or the warning signs and evidence were not as substantial as they are here. But those concerns are significantly diminished by several well-established principles. First, the principle that grossly negligent or intentional acts are generally superseding causes remains intact. We simply hold that with these unique facts, and in this procedural posture and applicable standard of review, this case falls outside the general rule regarding intentional acts because EC's acts were reasonably foreseeable, and that is the ultimate test that must be applied.

Second, our decision is based solely on the record evidence, and the actions and inactions taken by defendants despite the uniquely troubling facts of which they were fully aware.And this point is important, as although the judiciary typically recognizes that a decision's precedent is limited by the facts at issue, it is particularly true when the court expresses that limitation.

Third, our decision is premised upon a deferential standard of review, and is based only upon the record established at the preliminary exam. Whether a jury actually finds that causation has been proven after a full trial, where the record will almost surely be more expansive (including evidence produced by defendants), is an issue separate from what we decide today.

Judge Riordan joined the majority opinion, but added:

In the typical case, of course, the parents of a child, who might be characterized as troubled, cannot be held criminally liable for that child's own crime. "Criminal guilt under our law is personal fault. It is highly individualistic. It comes not from association, without more, be it with family or friends." Moreover, it long has been recognized that the failure of a parent to provide proper care for a child generally "is not a crime."

In a nutshell, the law simply does not permit criminal liability for poor parenting or insensitivity when confronted with a child's emotional swings or mental-health issues such as depression. Nor does the law permit criminal liability for parental irresponsibility with respect to a difficult, aggressive, or angry child. The fact that a child with such issues also may have access to a potentially dangerous instrumentality made available by his or her parents, such as a motor vehicle, a knife, or even a gun, does not necessarily affect these principles.

If we do not prohibit a troubled child of driving age from operating a car provided by his or her parents, I discern no principled reason why those parents should automatically be subject to criminal liability if the troubled child uses the car to cause harm. So too with a gun, or any other commonly available instrumentality.

The difference between this case and the typical case in which a child commits a crime with a potentially dangerous mechanism, however, is that EC was not merely a troubled child with obvious mental-health problems. Instead, the morning of the shooting, EC drew a picture of a body that appeared to have two bullet holes in the torso, apparently with blood streaming out of them, which was near another drawing of a handgun that resembled the gun his parents, defendants James Crumbley and Jennifer Crumbley, had very recently gifted to him. The body in the drawing obviously could not have inflicted such wounds upon itself, so the logical inference is that the body was shot by another. Thus, this drawing suggests that EC not only was potentially suicidal, as school counselor Shawn Hopkins believed at the time, but also that he presented a danger to others with his handgun. In other words, there was visual evidence, known by defendants, that EC was contemplating the act of gunshot wounds being inflicted upon someone.

In my view, this drawing, coupled with the other evidence aptly discussed by … the majority opinion, establishes probable cause that EC's conduct on the afternoon of November 30, 2021, was reasonably foreseeable by defendants. Simply put, this discrete evidence of considered harm to others distinguishes the situation here from the overwhelming majority of cases in which parents may not, and should not, be criminally liable for a child's crime. In the absence of such discrete evidence as is before us, the outcome of the instant appeal easily may have been different….