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Parents of Michigan school shooting suspect fight to forbid prosecutor’s expert witness

Sept. 15, 2022 Updated Thu., Sept. 15, 2022 at 1:15 p.m.

From left, Jennifer Crumbley, defense attorney Mariell Lehman, and James Crumbley during a pre-trial hearing in front of Judge Cheryl Matthews at Oakland County Circuit Court in Pontiac, Michigan, on Tuesday, March 22, 2022.    (Max Ortiz/The Detroit News/TNS)
From left, Jennifer Crumbley, defense attorney Mariell Lehman, and James Crumbley during a pre-trial hearing in front of Judge Cheryl Matthews at Oakland County Circuit Court in Pontiac, Michigan, on Tuesday, March 22, 2022.   (Max Ortiz/The Detroit News/TNS)
By Mike Martindale The Detroit News

PONTIAC, Mich. — The Oxford couple facing charges related to the Nov. 30 school shooting involving their teenage son are arguing the Oakland County prosecutor’s expert witness shouldn’t be allowed to testify.

Defense attorneys for the Crumbleys argue the case against their clients has largely been driven by exaggeration and half-truths that will serve to prejudice the jury.

In an 11-page legal filing to Oakland County Circuit Judge Cheryl Matthews, defense attorneys Shannon Smith and Mariell Lehman contend “Much of the prosecution’s effort … is to seek the admission of irrelevant evidence disguised as information to bolster expert testimony about ‘pathways to violence.’”

Defense attorneys described the area of study as “relatively novel,” “there is not consistency among research findings” and “research to date does not provide helpful conclusions.”

The arguments come as the trial for James and Jennifer Crumbley has been adjourned until next year so attorneys can argue what expert testimony should be heard by the jury.

The Crumbleys are each facing four charges of involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of Oxford High School students Hana St. Juliana, Madisyn Baldwin, Tate Myre and Justin Shilling — all victims of the Nov. 30 shooting in their school allegedly by fellow classmate Ethan Crumbley, then 15 years old. The Crumbleys could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted. They had a tentative Oct. 24 trial date.

But Matthews has now set a hearing for Oct. 28 to determine the admissibility of the prosecutor’s proposed expert testimony. Matthews said it will also necessitate an adjournment of the Crumbleys’ jury trial date to be determined in January.

Ironically that’s the same month their son will be in another courtroom for his own trial, which carries penalties of up to life in prison. His is scheduled for a Jan. 17 trial before Judge Kwame Rowe. All three Crumbleys remain in the Oakland County Jail, including the teenager who is segregated from adult prisoners for his safety.

Attorneys on both sides have declined to discuss any aspects of the case citing Matthews’ gag order forbidding them from talking with the news media. But court records provide a partial view of what to expect to play out in court.

‘Pathway to violence’ fight

Last month Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald filed legal motions that her office will detail a “large trove of evidence that has not yet come into the record,” including how the Crumbleys “exposed their son to years of chaotic, toxic conflict” and were aware their son was “troubled” but instead of providing him with medical help, purchased him a gun as an early Christmas gift.

McDonald wrote to Matthews there was a “pathway to violence” provided to the shooter by his parents’ behavior. The FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit has recognized that the “pathway to violence” is a “set of behaviors” leading up to an act of targeted violence, such as a mass shooting. The model has been studied by law enforcement, universities and researchers as a “risk assessment and management tool,” McDonald wrote.

Recent court records indicate the prosecution intends to call as their expert witness, Dr. Jillian Peterson, a forensic psychologist and criminologist, who has studied, written and spoken extensively about mass shooting trends.

Peterson declined an interview Sept. 7 with The News for this article, explaining she “is involved with the case.” She co-authored “The Violence Project: How To Stop a Mass Shooting Epidemic.” The data-driven 2021 book examined 180 mass shooters since 1966 from childhood and adolescence including their mental health and motives. Mass shootings have been defined by the FBI as those with four or more victims.

Among findings Peterson and her co-author James Densley determined were school mass shooters tend to be current or former students of the school; almost always in crisis of some sort before their attack, as indicated by a noticeable change in behavior from usual; often are inspired by other school shooters; and tend to leak their plans for violence in advance to their peers. School shooters also usually get their guns from family and friends who failed to store them safely and securely, the book determined.

In one of her related websites, Peterson said news reports suggest “a lot of this holds true for the Oxford High School shooter.” It noted Ethan Crumbley’s father allegedly bought him the handgun just four days before the incident, his mother took him to a gun range to practice firing the weapon and that the suspect “reportedly exhibited concerning behavior at school and posted pictures of the gun alongside threats of violence on social media.”

Peterson’s book talks about building systems in schools and workplaces to recognize people in crisis and everyone in these places to know crisis intervention skills, plus reporting mechanisms that are not punitive. These issues, and concerns others could have helped avert the tragedy, have already surfaced in allegations of several lawsuits filed by the families of victims against school officials.

The Crumbleys, who in their own legal filings have identified the son as the responsible shooter, plan to challenge the admissibility of the prosecutor’s proposed expert testimony. The Crumbleys have claimed they had no reason to expect their son was dangerous or that they could have prevented the shooting from occurring. They have referred to his actions as his “insanity” and the teenager’s attorneys have indicated they will seek an insanity defense for their client.

Crumbley’s parents have been charged because of alleged gross negligence that included them purchasing him a handgun and purportedly providing access to it as well as disregarding his need for psychiatric counseling despite his pleas for help. During a morning conference between school officials, the Crumbleys and their son just a few hours before the shooting, the parents did not disclose the existence of the weapon, now believed to have been in the backpack the son carried to his classes.

Issues being debated

“Much of the proffered evidence about the Crumbleys would confuse the issues, mislead the jury and cause unfair prejudice to the Crumbleys,” they wrote in the 11-page Aug. 29 filing.

Among matters in contention or described as irrelevant to their charges and likely to be discussed at next month’s hearing:

— Any financial issues, including the Crumbleys spending “thousands on food deliveries, alcohol and horse related expenses” compared to medical care.

Defense written response: When their son complained of headaches he was taken to the doctor, followed up by X-rays, an eye appointment and an evaluation for jaw joint discomfort. They had orthodontic braces put on him and took him to checkups every four to six weeks. When determined he was not brushing his teeth correctly, resulting in cavities, the braces were removed and he had 13 cavities filled.

— Claims that the teen did not have health insurance pointing to neglect.

Defense: When the case began, open enrollment was taking place through the mother’s employer and his father was in the process of getting a new position.

— The prosecution has said the Crumbleys spent nearly $4,000 during 2021 at a nearby liquor store.

Defense: Lawyers noted the store also sells other items the Crumbleys routinely purchase including eggs, bread, milk, cigarettes and food.

— The Crumbleys were behind on their mortgage.

Defense: Failed to acknowledge the couple were enrolled in a program through Flagstar, which allowed deferred payments after COVID-19.

— A claim that decades of studies show mass shootings are preventable is an “oversimplification … otherwise they would not be commonplace.”

— Cherry-picked texts and snippets from written materials while ignoring thousands of messages that would disprove the prosecutor’s position.

— Any discussion of an alleged extramarital affair that occurred when their son was 6 years old.

— Alleged trauma caused by his parents “kicking out his half brother” from their home after he discovered using and selling drugs from the home.

— The brother’s leaving reportedly prompted the teen to write a note on a homework assignment that his “family is a mistake.” But around the same time, defense lawyers note, he had also penned separate essays in which he described his parents individually as his heroes.

— When Ethan struggled in school his parents paid for at least two professional tutors to help him and arranged for an unpaid student tutor who received volunteer hours in exchange for tutoring.

— The parents sent their son to summer school, camp and took family vacations. They attended parent-teacher conferences and exchanged emails with teachers. He was involved in sports, including soccer, bowling, softball and football and frequently sent snow skiing with his mother at Pine Knob.

— Family traditions included cutting down a Christmas tree on the day after Thanksgiving — including in 2021, just a few days before the shooting.

“Based on the notoriety of the case, anyone with good things to say about the Crumbleys are terrified to come forward,” attorneys wrote. “Family witnesses who have given the defense information about the Crumbleys have only done so confidentially, afraid they will become the subject of attack in the media and otherwise.”

One witness defense lawyers said they need to call to testify on their clients’ behalf is the couple’s son, Ethan Crumbley.

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