In the blurry video clip from inside the cop car, Jennifer and James Crumbley sit in the back seat, held there temporarily just hours after their son killed four fellow students and wounded seven other persons in the Oxford High School gun massacre.
On the motion picture — shown at Jennifer’s trial last week in Oakland County Circuit Court — James asks his wife “Why are you in fucking handcuffs?”
Someone she knows appears near the car and she yells repeatedly, “Patrick! Patrick!”
James, not in cuffs and on her left, tries to calm her.
“Jen, Jen,” he says in a softer tone. “He can’t hear you.”
In the audio background, softly and incongruously, a radio station plays “September,” a disco song by Earth, Wind & Fire from 1978.
“BAH-de-ya — never was a cloudy day …. BAH-de-ya — golden dreams were shiny days … Bah-DOO-doo, bah-DOO-doo…”
Just before the cops take Jennifer away, James leans over toward his wife so that the bill of his ball cap nears the dark frames of her glasses.
“Honey, I love you,” he says, “in case anything happens.”
He also warns her not to say anything to police without a lawyer nearby.
Much, of course, has happened since November 30, 2021, involving cops, lawyers, judges, jails, prisons, courts, and guns. Their son, Ethan, pleaded guilty to four murders with his shiny, new, 9mm Sig Sauer and has been sentenced to life in prison without parole, pending appeal.
Testimony ended Friday in Jennifer’s trial on four counts of involuntary manslaughter. Her case will go to the jury Monday morning. Her husband’s trial on the same charges is scheduled to begin in March. Until now, no parents in the United States ever have been charged with such a crime involving an offspring for a gun massacre at a school, despite all those gun massacres at all those schools.
But the Crumbleys are a special case in several ways. Although Ethan said he heard voices and saw demons, Ethan’s Dad bought Ethan the gun as an early Christmas present and Ethan’s Mom took Ethan to the gun range to practice firing fatal bullets (or “rounds,” as the gun groomers insist on calling them).
If one or both Crumbley parents are found guilty, it will mark progress in the movement toward gun safety, especially in Michigan. Along with extending blame and liability beyond the trigger-puller, one or two more Crumbley convictions would add momentum because they coincide with Michigan’s soon-to-be-enforced “red flag” laws.
Beginning on Feb. 13, judges may take hand-held murder machines away from people like Ethan Crumbley, who spent school time drawing a picture of a bullet-ridden, bleeding corpse, which was shown to his parents just hours before his shooting spree.
The start date is the anniversary of the Michigan State University gun massacre, which took three lives last year. The Great Lakes State is the 21st state to enact such a law. In addition, Michigan will strengthen background checks, demand safe storage, and limit the ability of domestic abusers to get guns.
Of the red flag law, State Attorney General Dana Nessel told the Detroit News: “It’s not about going out and arresting somebody. It’s simply about removing weapons from somebody who poses a threat or a danger to themselves or others. This is not about locking folks up.”
But, of course, that is how these things will be portrayed among the firearms zealots and culture warriors of the right wing who treat the Second Amendment as if it replaces one of the Ten Commandments, the one that says “Thou Shalt Not Kill.”
It used to be, in the aftermath of ritual gun massacres and attempts at common-sense gun legislation, you could count on the National Rifle Association’s knee-jerk propaganda and political war chest to terrify enough voters and intimidate enough Republican politicians to minimize progress.
But the NRA has shot itself in the foot — both feet, in fact —– in recent years. Lately, it laid off staff, canceled events, and is fighting lawsuits. Its chief executive, Wayne LaPierre, resigned just before a current civil case brought by the state of New York charging the NRA with financial fraud and corruption.
It is alleged that while loyal members paid dues to protect their Second Amendment “rights,” LaPierre used some of their money on $250,000 worth of suits at a Beverly Hills boutique, $38,000 to take his family for a vacation in the Bahamas, and a $10,000 beautician’s bill for his wife.
This from an organization that spent $55 million on politics in 2016, $30 million of it for the election of Donald Trump as president. Might the NRA’s downward-spiral be an opportunity for gun-safety politicians to score points?
Perhaps. Or, it could be a moment for splinter groups to demand more radical causes, like the abolition of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives or a violent, armed revolution to replace the current government.
In the meantime, we get drama like the Crumbley trial, which you could follow partly on cable TV and partly through the herky-jerky delivery of internet streaming on a computer screen. What you see and hear is theatrical, but earnest, with honest emotion.
If one or both Crumbley parents are found guilty, it will mark progress in the movement toward gun safety, especially in Michigan.
On Thursday morning, for long and painful minutes, a viewer could see and hear the sobbing of the defendant, her lawyer, and even the hard-boiled cop on the witness stand as he described how living human flesh is maimed by powerful bullets.
The judge called for a recess. The cop also read aloud a page from Ethan’s journal written the night before the attack.
“The shooting is tomorrow,” Ethan wrote. “I’m going to prison for the rest of my life and many people have about one day to live.”
Later in her testimony, Jennifer told the jury “I don’t think I’m a failure as a parent,” and “I wish he would have killed us instead.” She said it with a straight face, in a matter-of-fact way.
Some of her drama is non-verbal. It is one thing to read or hear that a defendant was in restraints. But it leaves a different impression to see Crumbley stand up, get her wrists handcuffed behind her back, and be shackled with a chain to walk away with cops — clink-clink-clink — through the courtroom door.
Her lawyer, Shannon Smith, tried through Crumbley’s testimony and the final summary to portray Crumbley as a hard-working and loving parent with an unruly teenager.
She showed Crumbley’s Facebook photos of her son at Sleeping Bear Dunes and one of him petting a horse and another of him petting a kitten. She spoke of family camping trips and of renting a houseboat together and driving up to Mackinaw City and cutting down Christmas trees.
At times, it seemed like a script for one of those ads for “Pure Michigan.”
Later, her defense of Crumbley turned cringey at times, as Smith seemed to try to build a sisterhood of harried motherhood that included Crumbley, Smith herself, and — perhaps — one or two mothers on the jury who might identify with and sympathize with Crumbley’s maternal challenges.
After all, a good mother must enforce discipline. The night before the killings, Jennifer testified, she punished her son for bad grades by forbidding him to use his cellphone or his gun at the range.
“Those are his trigger points,” she said.
Smith told the jurors “real life is messy and complicated” and also said that many of the small arguments she’d had with her own kids were the same sort of tiffs that Crumbley and other moms have with their kids.
Crumbley made mistakes, her lawyer acknowledged, but she did her best. Smith said she herself admits “all my flaws” and “so has Jennifer Crumbley.” At times, Smith’s tone suggested she was trying to convince herself of this line of logic.
Saying “I am Jennifer Crumbley” and calling the case “a dangerous one for parents out there,” Smith said kids, especially teens, don’t share everything with their parents and that any parent might be accused of a crime should their child do something unforeseeable.
This may have been a stretch, but it might have been Smith’s best stretch. Only one juror voting in favor of Crumbley could lead to a hung jury and a mistrial and possible freedom. The parents have been in jail for more than two years because they were deemed a flight risk.
“I’m asking you to find Jennifer Crumbley not guilty not just for Jennifer Crumbley,” Smith said, “but for every mother who is out there, doing the best they can, who could easily be in her shoes … Mrs. Crumbley was, in fact, a hypervigilant mother … she’s not a monster.”
The prosecutors portrayed Mrs. Crumbley in a different light, working into the record references to her extramarital affair and the possibility — judging from her cellphone evidence — that she was prepared to soon add one or more persons to her sexual adventures.
In her closing summation, prosecutor Karen McDonald of Oakland County spoke before a female judge, a female defendant, a female defense attorney, and who knows how many female mothers on the jury.
McDonald said Crumbley showed “consciousness of guilt” by fleeing and hiding out with her husband near downtown Detroit when they knew they were wanted by the law.
McDonald also played her version of the humanity chord by referring to the dead kids by their first names: Tate, Hana, Madisyn, and Justin. And she presented Jennifer Crumbley as a selfish person who cared more about her horses and her boyfriend than she did for her own son.
In that Jennifer met with her husband, her son, and school officials shortly before the massacre, McDonald said of Mrs. Crumbley:
“She could have searched the backpack; she could have asked her son where the gun was; she could have locked the ammunition; she could have locked the gun; she could have taken him home; she could have taken him to work … She could have told the school that they just gifted him a gun.”
Therefore, McDonald reasoned, there should be no sympathy for the neglectful mother of a mass killer.
“She sat here and said she wouldn’t do one thing different,” McDonald told the jury. “Find her guilty on four counts of involuntary manslaughter. Thank you.”