Talking Points

The political risk in prosecuting an alleged school shooter's parents

Who's responsible when a minor kills? For legal purposes, the greatest burden falls on the accused. There are situations, though, where parents may be liable to prosecution. In many states, that includes cases where parents provide guns to children or don't take steps to keep them out of unsupervised hands.  

Michigan isn't one of the jurisdictions with child gun access protection laws, though. That makes surprising Friday's announcement of charges against James and Jennifer Crumbley, the parents of accused school shooter Ethan Crumbley. According to prosecutors, the Crumbleys not only gave their son the pistol he allegedly used in last week's shooting at Oxford High School as a Christmas present, but also ignored a written note indicating he was planning a massacre. If convicted, they face up to 15 years in prison for four counts of involuntary manslaughter. (As of this writing, authorities are searching for the Crumbleys, who disappeared, then said through their attorneys they did not flee.)

In a press conference Friday, Oakland County Prosecutor Karen Macdonald acknowledged the rarity of such prosecutions. "But the facts of this case are so egregious," she said. "The notion that a parent could read those words and also know that their son had access to a deadly weapon that they gave him is unconscionable, and I think it's criminal."

It's too early in the process to know whether Macdonald's account of the facts and legal analysis are accurate. But the Kyle Rittenhouse trial that concluded last month indicates the risks of confusing unconscionable acts with criminal ones. In that case, overzealous prosecutors charged crimes beyond what the law justified. The result was that Rittenhouse was not only acquitted but became a martyr for some conservatives and Republicans. 

There's a similar possibility here. Although she's not well known outside her region, Macdonald ran for office on a progressive platform, criticizing her predecessor for prosecuting white security guards for the asphyxiation death of McKenzie Cochrane, who was Black, in 2014. Now, she's taking an unusually hard line with the Crumbleys, who are supporters of former President Donald Trump and Second Amendment enthusiasts

If Macdonald's case turns out to be as weak as the Rittenhouse prosecution, the Crumbleys are likely to claim they're victims of political bias. They'll almost certainly find support among populists who believe the Democratic Party, criminal justice system, and media are conspiring to repress them.

The Crumbleys' actions may have been stupid, immoral, or liable to civil penalties, but that's not enough to make them crimes — however much those horrified by the latest school massacre might wish it were. Another wave of ideological polarization depends on whether Macdonald knows the difference.