Michigan school shooter case shows risks of further prosecution

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We’re back with yet another edition of Opening Argument, a column where I dig into complicated legal battles, unpack issues that divide appellate courts, and discuss disputes ripe for Supreme Court review. Today we are reviewing the case against the parents of the alleged Michigan school shooter.

A 15-year-old boy is the one who allegedly pulled the trigger and killed four of his classmates in a Michigan school shooting that injured seven other people last month, but the county prosecutor charged the child and his parents.

Charging parents was an unusual move that shows prosecutors are seeking, in the absence of gun control laws, to stop the bloodshed in our schools by holding anyone responsible for contributing to the tragedy. It’s a risky case to present and one that may ultimately encourage prosecutors to criminalize parents when their children commit a crime and set a kind of precedent that will hit minority parents the hardest.

If the case stands, Oakland County District Attorney Karen McDonald will have to prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Jennifer and James Crumbley are guilty of manslaughter and contributed to their son’s alleged actions. Ethan.

The Crumbleys reportedly bought the gun from Ethan as an early Christmas present and did not ask where he was or remove Ethan from school, after school officials called them to discuss the disturbing drawings found on Ethan’s desk. But that doesn’t mean their actions have reached the level of criminal negligence.

“They have to show that what the shooter did was the result of parental negligence, and that appears to be a course of action that might be difficult to trace,” said Lara Bazelon, professor and director of juvenile criminal justice. and racial. Clinical Justice Programs at the University of San Francisco Law School.

While the parents seemed deeply problematic from the information that was presented, she said it was always a jump to show they knew he was going to open fire on his classmates.

Defense attorneys because the Crumbleys did not respond to a request for comment, but they have a big advantage in this case.

Thirty states and Washington, DC, have laws to prevent children from accessing guns, and 11 states have laws regarding gun locking devices, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Michigan only prohibits authorized dealers from selling a firearm without a trigger lock, pistol holster, or other storage container, but there is no law requiring the gun owner to keep the gun safe or hold it. responsible if a child accesses it.

Because of this, Nadia Banteka, assistant professor at the McGeorge School of Law at the University of the Pacific, said “it will be more difficult for the prosecution to defend a case in this case than if it had legislation. on his side. “

The defense can also argue that the school bears the responsibility for letting Ethan return to class and not checking his backpack, and that parents were not the primary drivers of the tragedy that unfolded. produced.

“This is an extremely defensible case,” Bazelon said. “On the other hand, these parents are incredibly unfriendly.”

But there is a danger here even if the prosecution wins. Whenever the law is used in a new way that expands criminal liability, legal scholars say it is often used disproportionately against blacks and marginalized people.

“What worries me is that this will legitimize the exercise of prosecutorial discretion which is very new and could be used in future cases, unlike it to attack parents, who are perceived as not having exercised sufficient responsibility for the supervision of their children. , who continue to commit crimes, ”said Evan Bernick, assistant professor at Northern Illinois University College of Law, where he teaches criminal law and procedure.

If the prosecution loses, however, Jeffrey Swartz, a professor of criminal law at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School and a former Miami-Dade County court judge and attorney, said it could promote parents’ right to involve their children in gun culture.

“I am sensitive to the feelings of the prosecutor and her goals, but the end does not justify the means,” he said.

In a statement, David Williams, the deputy chief prosecutor for the Oakland County district attorney’s office, rebuffed the concerns. He said the vast majority of gun owners are responsible, but hopes this sends a message to those who fail to properly secure their guns, and said any law can be disproportionately enforced.

“It is up to each prosecutor to ensure that he exercises his authority in a non-discriminatory manner,” he said. “The key message in this case is that if a gun owner acts with gross negligence that allows a child to have access to a gun, and that child shoots or kills someone, that owner firearms should be held responsible. “

Yet in this case, it looks like there may not be any winners.

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