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Court hearing to resume for the parents of accused Michigan school shooter

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

In Michigan today, there will be a preliminary hearing for the parents of the alleged shooter who killed four classmates at Oxford High School last November. Prosecutors took the rare step of charging James and Jennifer Crumbley with involuntary manslaughter. And legal experts say the hearing is unusually complex, and the outcome could pave the way for criminalizing parenting decisions. From member station WDET in Detroit, here's Quinn Klinefelter.

(SOUNDBITE OF RATTLING CHAINS)

QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: This was a scene a few weeks ago - Jennifer and James Crumbley entered a courtroom bound in chains, their wrists eventually clamped to the arms of their chairs. They face a mountain of evidence assembled against them - tens of thousands of pages of social media posts and texts - and as many as 30 potential witnesses. That includes Jennifer Crumbley's work supervisor Andrew Smith, who recited text messages she'd sent him the day prosecutors allege her son Ethan took a gun to school and went on a murderous rampage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAREN MCDONALD: And what does it say?

ANDREW SMITH: OMG, Andy. He's going to kill himself. He must be the shooter.

MCDONALD: And then the next text.

A SMITH: I need a lawyer at substation with police.

MCDONALD: And then what else?

A SMITH: Ethan did it.

KLINEFELTER: Prosecutors claim the Crumbleys knew that their son Ethan was troubled, but they bought him a handgun for Christmas anyway. They say school officials called them in and showed them pictures he'd drawn depicting blood and violence, but they refused to take him out of class and back home. Oakland County prosecutor Karen McDonald argues that the parents had a duty to protect the community from their son.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCDONALD: They knew he was preoccupied with violent material that they - he had access to a gun. He could use it when he wanted to. And he was disturbed. It's a parental duty. It goes far beyond careless. It's gross negligence.

KLINEFELTER: Defense attorneys dispute whether Ethan Crumbley had easy access to a gun, but for the case to move on to a jury trial, the prosecution need only show it's more likely than not the defendants committed a crime. That often happens fairly quickly. But this case is different, and the hearing, which began two weeks ago, before being paused, could still stretch on for days.

BILL SWOR: It is unusual, but this is an unusual case with unusual facts and unusual theories.

KLINEFELTER: Bill Swor has practiced law in Michigan for decades and is the immediate past president of the American Board of Criminal Lawyers. He says the prosecution may have solid grounds for civil action, and indeed, there have been civil lawsuits filed against the parents and school officials, but Swor questions whether the evidence against the parents rises to the level of charging them with involuntary manslaughter.

SWOR: Being a bad parent is not a criminal act. For example, the statement they knew he was troubled - that doesn't mean that they knew he intended to harm someone.

KLINEFELTER: There are plenty of examples of prosecutors charging relatives when a child gains access to a gun and accidentally kills themselves or someone else. Kate Weisburd teaches law at George Washington University and says the prosecution's assertion that the Crumbleys knew their son could become violent makes this case unique.

KATE WEISBURD: Where do we draw the line for criminal liability, not just for parents but for all the other responsible parties who had a role to play in this case? With respect to the school, with respect to the gun store that sold them the gun - these are all entities that could, in theory, be criminally liable.

MARTINEZ: That's Quinn Klinefelter on NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVCRUSH'S "SURRENDER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quinn Klinefelter