The key question from the Crumbleys case tests: Are school shootings preventable?

James and Jennifer Crumbleys’ new criminal case is well on its way to testing a theory that has never been proven: that all school shootings are preventable. That’s what two mass shooting experts testified at

James and Jennifer Crumbleys’ new criminal case is well on its way to testing a theory that has never been proven: that all school shootings are preventable.

That’s what two mass shooting experts testified at a hearing on Friday as prosecutors set the stage for their trial strategy that the Oxford school shooter’s parents could have prevented the massacre, but did not. The expert theory is that Ethan Crumbley was on a violent path and somewhere along that path someone could have stepped in and stopped him from going on a rampage, especially given all the warning signs. that he was fleeing.

Perhaps most notable was the violent drawing that Ethan Crumbley had scribbled on his spreadsheet and shown to his parents the morning of the shooting. It included a gun, a bloody body, and the words, “Thoughts won’t stop. Help me.”

“His word literally says, ‘Help me.’ … An ordinary person seeing this mathematical drawing – they would know it is cause for intervention,” said criminologist Jillian Peterson, who prosecutors want to use in the trial against the Crumpleys, who are charged with manslaughter for their son. which killed four students on Nov. 30, 2021. It injured seven others at Oxford High School north of Detroit.

After seeing this drawing, the Crumbleys insisted that their son be sent back to school – which he was – and never revealed that they had bought him a gun four days earlier.

The Crumbleys have long maintained that they had no idea their son was going to commit a school shooting, that they kept the gun in a locked drawer and were unaware that he was threatening violence in a diary and notebook that he kept – writings that the prosecution plans to use against them.

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According to the Pathway to Violence theory, prosecutors say the Crumbleys did two key things that make them responsible:

  • They ignored multiple warning signs from their son that he was going around in circles and planning violence.
  • They gave him the opportunity to exercise this violence by buying him a gun.

“Mass shooters slowly evolve into violence over time. They don’t just snap,” said Peterson, who noted that while “we can’t predict who a mass shooter is going to be,” researchers and others can “spot a pattern” and intervene before a plan is executed.

Oxford High School shooting suspect Ethan Crumbley pleads guilty to his role in the school shooting that occurred on November 30, 2021, while appearing in Oakland County Circuit Court in Pontiac on Monday, October 24, 2022.

Specific behaviors are recognized as leading to targeted violence

Peterson, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice and director of the forensic psychology program at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, is one of two mass shooting experts who appeared in court Friday as that the two sides were arguing over whether the experts should be allowed to testify at trial. The other is Dr. Dewey Cornell, a forensic psychologist from the University of Virginia.

Both experts testified that school shootings can be prevented if people pay attention to a host of warning signs that can appear at any time on a person’s path to violence. Prosecutors note that the FBI recognized the “path of violence” as a “set of behaviors” leading to an act of targeted violence, such as a mass shooting. They said the model has been used by law enforcement, universities and researchers.

In this screenshot from an Oakland County courtroom, Judge Cheryl Matthews listens to arguments during a hearing for Jennifer and James Crumbley as they seek to have their bail reduced on April 19, 2022 The request for a lower bond was refused.

Oakland County Circuit Judge Cheryl Matthews must decide whether the expert testimony is reliable and could help the jury decide whether the Crumbleys could have prevented the shooting.

The defense argues that the data on the course of violence is unreliable and that the jury does not need experts to explain common sense questions to them that they can conclude on their own, such as whether the shooting was preventable or if the shooter gave signs for his parents or others he intended to kill.

But chief assistant prosecutor David Williams urged the judge to let the testimony in, arguing it’s crucial to dispel a ‘pervasive myth’ that school shooters break and nothing can be done to stop them . This is how he alleges the Crumbleys responded – that their son’s actions came as a complete surprise.

“Mass shootings are not inevitable. We are not powerless. They are preventable,” Williams said. “Jurors need to hear from experts who have seen this pattern time and time again. Judge, this is an emotionally charged case. Four children have died.”

The defense, meanwhile, disputed the prosecution’s claim that the defendants believe their son snapped.

“We’re not going to pretend he just snapped,” defense attorney Shannon Smith told the judge. “Defendants saying they were surprised and taken aback is not the same as saying he snapped. Clearly Ethan didn’t just snap…the defense would be foolish to suggest that he just slammed.”

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Lawyers for the Crumbleys asked the judge not to allow the violence route experts to testify at trial, arguing that their research was unreliable, untested and did not include any examples of shootings in schools prevented by these methods.

Additionally, Smith said, experts maintain that Ethan Crumbley had access to a gun.

“Access to a firearm is going to be a hotly contested issue at trial,” argued Smith, who called the expert testimony a “veiled attempt to elicit inadmissible evidence.”

“All it signals to the jury is that these parents are guilty. And that’s a conclusion for the jury to make for themselves, not an expert,” Smith said.

Dispute data

During Friday’s hearing, the defense went back and forth with the experts about their data.

“Are all school shootings preventable? Smith asked Peterson, the first expert who testified.

“Yes,” Peterson replied.

But Smith countered that there’s no data to show that, or “concrete evidence” that shows that if certain things are done, a school shooting will never happen. She said universities and law enforcement still have “a long way to go for research” in this area.

“I would say the information we have is pretty good. We just need to get it out there,” Peterson replied.

Smith then referred to other school shootings, noting red flags about shooters who committed their crimes nonetheless. For example, in the recent Shooting at Saint-Louis school, the shooter had been committed to a mental health facility prior to the shooting, she noted. And in 2018 Parkland, Florida, school shooting which left 18 students dead, the shooter was on the FBI’s radar before shooting down a high school.

“With him being on the radar, he was still capable and committed a violent school shooting, right?” Smith asked, as she moved on to another question.

“Did you interview someone who said, ‘I knew the shooting was going to happen? I knew he was going to do this before he did?’ “Smith asked.

“I’ve interviewed people who said, ‘I was very worried,'” Peterson replied.

Smith then asked Peterson if his database included parents charged with manslaughter for their child’s actions in a school shooting case.

The expert said no. His research only pertains to parents who have been accused of buying a gun from a minor or violating a safe storage law.

“There were signs, and the jury must hear that”

On referral, a prosecutor asked the expert, “What’s different about this case?”

“The volume of leaks,” the expert testified, referring to warnings from Ethan Crumbley that he planned to do harm.

It should also be noted, Peterson said, that the parents were called to the school about the warning signs and knew he had access to a gun.

In its closing arguments, the defense urged the judge to block expert testimony, while the prosecutor pleaded with her to let him in.

“Every time there’s another shooting…there’s always someone saying there was no sign,” Williams said. “And each time it turns out to be wrong. There were signs, and the jury needs to hear that…so they can determine whether these defendants could have prevented the shooting.”

Judge Matthews said she would issue a written opinion.

The hearing came four days after the Crumbleys’ son, Ethan Crumbley, 16, pleaded guilty to the 24 counts he was charged with, including first-degree murder and terrorism. He admitted to murdering four classmates, injuring others, and hoping to sow panic and fear in his school. He faces life in prison without the possibility of parole when sentenced in February.

Contact Tresa Baldas: [email protected]