On November 30, 2021, a mass shooting occurred at Oxford High School in Oakland County, Michigan where four students were killed and seven people were injured. Law enforcement arrested and charged 15-year old high school sophomore Ethan Crumbley as a suspect in the shooting. On December 3, 2021, the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office announced that they would charge his parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, with four counts of involuntary manslaughter on the theory that they failed to secure the firearm that their son allegedly used in the massacre. There is no question that Mr. and Mrs. Crumbley were not physically present in the school building during the shooting or active assisted their son in taking lives. Could they be convicted of involuntary manslaughter in Michigan?
“Involuntary manslaughter is the killing of another without malice and unintentionally, but in doing some unlawful act not amounting to a felony nor naturally tending to cause death or great bodily harm, or in negligently doing some act lawful in itself, or by the negligent omission to perform a legal duty.” People v Ryczek, 224 Mich 106, 110; 194 NW 609 (1923). This is distinct from murder where an individual must have the intent to kill with malice. Further, it is distinct from voluntary manslaughter where someone had the intent to kill or do serious bodily harm, but malice was negated by provocation from the deceased and the homicide was committed in the heat of passion. People v Townes, 391 Mich 578, 589; 218 NW2d 136 (1974).
A person is guilty of involuntary manslaughter if the prosecutor can prove all of the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt (Michigan Criminal Jury Instruction 16.10):
- First, that the individual caused the death of the victim, that is, that the victim died as a result of the individual’s act.
- Second, in doing the act that caused the victim’s death, the individual acted in a grossly negligent manner OR in doing the act that caused the victim’s death, the individual intended to injure the victim.
- Third, that the individual caused the death without lawful excuse or justification.
The prosecutor’s theory is that the parents acted with gross negligence which caused the victims’ death, so this would satisfy the requisite mental state for involuntary negligence. According to People v McCoy, 223 Mich App 500, 503; 566 NW2d 667 (1997), to prove gross negligence, a prosecutor must show:
- (1) Knowledge of a situation requiring the exercise of ordinary care and diligence to avert injury to another.
- (2) Ability to avoid the resulting harm by ordinary care and diligence in the use of the means at hand.
- (3) The omission [i.e., failure] to use such care and diligence to avert the threatened danger when to the ordinary mind it must be apparent that the result is likely to prove disastrous to another.
Causation is an element of involuntary manslaughter and requires the prosecutor to prove both factual causation and proximate causation. Factual causation exists if the court determines that, but for the defendant’s conduct, the resulting death would not have happened. People v Feezel, 486 Mich 184, 194-195; 783 NW2d 67 (2010). However, it is not enough to assign legal liability because of any possible connection, no matter how distant it is. Proximate causation is a legal principle designed to prevent criminal liability from attaching when the result of the defendant’s conduct is viewed as too remote or unnatural. “If the finder of fact determines that an intervening cause supersedes a defendant’s conduct such that the causal link between the defendant’s conduct and the victim’s injury was broken, proximate cause is lacking and criminal liability cannot be imposed…, [and] [w]hether an intervening cause supersedes a defendant’s conduct is a question of reasonable foreseeability.” Feezel, 486 Mich at 195. Whether someone’s actions amount to proximate cause for the purposes of involuntary manslaughter depends on the facts and circumstances. For example, a firearms manufacturer is too far removed to be responsible for one of their customers using their gun to kill. On the other hand, a person who removes the lug nuts from someone’s wheel and fails to replace them can be the proximate cause for manslaughter when the driver subsequently ends up in a fatal accident after the wheel comes off.
In the case of Mr. and Mrs. Crumbley, the prosecutor contends that they acted in gross negligence by failing to exercise ordinary care or diligence in securing the firearm to prevent their teenage son from accessing it. When he gained access to the weapon, the prosecutor contends the parents were the proximate cause of the loss of life that followed.
Is there precedent in Michigan to charge and convict individuals when the children in their care commit homicide? There is, in fact, two fairly recent cases, one that is a result of a plea bargain and one that was the result of a jury trial conviction.
In Mount Morris Township, Kaylee Renee Rolland was fatally shot on February 29, 2000 by a six-year old male classmate with a Davis Industries P-32 .32 caliber handgun. The boy had found the gun while living with his uncle Jamelle James at his house where firearms were often traded for drugs. The boy was not charged with murder due to his young age, but Genesee County prosecutors charged Mr. James with involuntary manslaughter due to his failure to secure the firearm from minors (it was found in a shoebox in his bedroom). He plead no contest to involuntary manslaughter and spent two years in prison before he was discharged on parole. Since he entered into a plea bargain, there was no appeal of his conviction.
In People v Head, 323 Mich App 526; 917 NW2d 752 (2018), the defendant was convicted by a jury of involuntary manslaughter where his nine-year old son (“DH”) was killed by his ten-year old daughter (“TH”) when she accessed a loaded, short-barreled shotgun in the home. Unlike Mr. James, this defendant contested criminal responsibility in this case. The defendant appealed on the basis that there was insufficient evidence of gross negligence and causation to sustain his conviction. The Michigan Court of Appeals disagreed:
“The evidence demonstrates that defendant kept an illegal, loaded, short-barreled shotgun in an unlocked closet in his bedroom. He allowed his children to spend time in that bedroom while unsupervised. In particular, defendant allowed his nine-year-old son, DH, to play a violent video game in that bedroom while unsupervised. Defendant’s 10-year-old daughter, TH, likewise had unsupervised access to defendant’s bedroom and entered that bedroom while DH was playing the video game. TH then suggested that she and DH act out the video game. She retrieved the loaded shotgun from the closet and accidentally fired the gun, which led to DH’s death. A rational trier of fact could find that defendant acted with gross negligence in allowing his children to have unsupervised access to a loaded shotgun. Defendant knew the situation required the exercise of ordinary care and diligence to avert injury. It goes without saying that a loaded shotgun poses a danger to young children who are not being monitored by an adult. Defendant had the ability to avoid the harm by exercising ordinary care and diligence. Setting aside the fact that it was illegal for him to possess the weapon, as he was a convicted felon, and the fact that the weapon itself was an illegal short-barreled shotgun, defendant could have taken other actions—short of giving up his illegal possession of the gun—to avoid the harm, such as removing the ammunition from the weapon or placing it in a secure location where his children would not have had access to it. By allowing his young children to play unsupervised in a room where he kept a loaded, readily accessible shotgun, defendant failed to use the requisite care and diligence; he failed to avert a threatened danger where the result was likely to prove disastrous to his children. Therefore, we conclude that there was sufficient evidence of gross negligence.” 323 Mich App at 533-534.
“Defendant’s challenge to the causation element is equally devoid of merit. It is beyond question that factual causation exists. But for defendant keeping a loaded shotgun in an unlocked closet of the bedroom where the children were playing without supervision, TH could not have obtained the weapon and accidentally shot DH. Proximate causation likewise exists. The result of defendant’s conduct was not remote or unnatural. A child dying from an accidental gunshot is exactly the type of harm that is to be expected from defendant’s conduct of keeping a loaded weapon readily accessible in a room where young children were playing. Nor does TH’s action of obtaining the weapon and accidentally firing it constitute an intervening cause that superseded defendant’s conduct. Rather, TH’s actions were reasonably foreseeable. Given that young children fail to appreciate the risks posed by loaded firearms in the same way that adults should, it is foreseeable that a child could accidentally fire a loaded weapon that was readily accessible in a room where the child was playing without supervision. Although some testimony suggested that defendant told the children not to touch the weapon or to go into the closet and that TH was ordinarily an obedient child, it is far from uncommon for a 10-year-old child to fail to comply with a parent’s instructions, and it was for the trier of fact to assess the weight of the evidence and the credibility of witnesses. Accordingly, there was sufficient evidence of causation regarding involuntary manslaughter.” 323 Mich App at 534-535.
There is certainly a legal basis to charge parents and other adults when minors get ahold of their weapons, but Mr. and Mrs. Crumbley have a set of facts that is distinguishable from these prior cases. A six-year old and a nine-year old are clearly considered among most reasonable people to not have the maturity or experience to understand the inherent dangers of a firearm. A small child who finds a gun would think it was merely a toy and might pull the trigger to achieve unexpected consequences. There is no question that responsible adults have a duty to secure their weapons from young children to prevent tragic outcomes. But what if the child is a 15-year old teenager with sufficient maturity and intent to not only possess the mental state to cause havoc and death but also properly use the firearm to achieve those ends? Can Mr. and Mrs. Crumbley be the proximate cause to the ensuing murders under these circumstances? It is an important question of fact and law that must be decided. If the prosecutor cannot connect sufficient proximate cause to the parents, then they will likely be acquitted.
Mr. and Mrs. Crumbley are presumed innocent until proven in a court of law. They are entitled to have the prosecutor prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, or else they are entitled to a verdict of not guilty. Anyone that is accused of a crime is entitled to the same rights and protections as Mr. and Mrs. Crumbley, including the right to have a skilled criminal defense lawyer in their corner to protect their interests. When you are facing serious criminal charges, you cannot settle for any less than the best legal representation in your corner.
If you or a loved one is charged with a crime and need legal representation, then do not hesitate to contact the experienced attorneys at Kershaw, Vititoe & Jedinak PLC for assistance today.