Jennifer Crumbley leaves the courtroom after a jury found her...

Jennifer Crumbley leaves the courtroom after a jury found her guilty of involuntary manslaughter on all counts after her trial at Oakland County Circuit Court in Pontiac, Michigan, on Tuesday. Credit: AP/Daniel Mears

Oakland County, Michigan, Prosecutor Karen McDonald wanted to send the message that gun owners need to secure their firearms, and in Jennifer Crumbley she found the messenger.

But is the courtroom the place to advocate for policy outcomes, or is its sole role to administer justice fairly?

“I want to be really clear that these charges are intended to hold the individuals who contributed to this tragedy accountable — and also send a message that gun owners have a responsibility,” McDonald said when announcing the charges Dec. 3, 2021.

Crumbley, the mother of the Oxford High School shooter, was found guilty by a jury Tuesday of four counts of involuntary manslaughter in the November 2021 shooting carried out by her son.

It’s an unprecedented conviction motivated by a deep desire for accountability on the part of the victims' families and the Oxford community that underscores the horror of the tragedy.

I get that. But the decision has the potential to create a precedent for holding even not-so-bad parents criminally responsible for the crimes of their children. The verdict opens a Pandora’s box of possibilities for prosecutors in future cases.

“You can’t limit this finding strictly to firearms,” said Jeffrey Swartz, a criminal law professor at Cooley Law School in Lansing. “So now you have to look at what other actions parents have to take — either disciplining or being concerned about their children.”

“What else do you have to do in securing your house?”

Perhaps the more serious question is how intuitive a parent must be in anticipating what their child is capable of doing. Most parents, even those of the most troubled children, likely wouldn't admit to themselves that their child is a potential killer.

As Jennifer Crumbley herself said during her testimony, “As a parent you spend your whole life trying to protect your child from other dangers. You never think you would have to protect your child from harming somebody else.”

After this verdict, parents absolutely have to think about that. Crumbley wasn’t on trial for evading safe storage statutes or physically neglecting her child at the time of the shooting. She was prosecuted for possibly knowing her son would kill others and failing to stop it. But even attentive parents don't always know their child's capabilities.

“We’ve learned from Jennifer Crumbley’s case that it is possible for the prosecutor to convince 12 people beyond a reasonable doubt that a parent can be held liable,” Eve Primus, Yale Kamisar Collegiate Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School, told CNN.

Crumbley was no doubt a neglectful and self-absorbed parent. The trial made that clear. But the precedent it sets asks prosecutors and juries to define the impossible: When is it reasonable to expect a parent to foresee a crime?

There's a contradiction in this case that should be more fully explored. The prosecutor tried Ethan Crumbley, who was 15 when the crime was committed, as an adult, and the judge handed down an adult sentence of life without parole.

Charging him as an adult conveyed the belief that he was responsible for his crimes. But according to the prosecutor, so were his parents. At what point are parents excused from the actions of an adult child?

Would parents be treated the same way had the shooter been 21? 25?

McDonald intended to put parents on notice, and she did. If it leads to more vigilance in properly handling and storing firearms, that's a good outcome.

But it could also land “good” parents in prison for failing to predict a child could go bad.

Kaitlyn Buss is assistant editorial page editor at The Detroit News.

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