The Michigan Supreme Court has granted a request to temporarily suspend the trial of Jennifer and James Crumbley, the first parents in America to be charged in a mass school shooting.
At issue is whether there was probable cause – or sufficient evidence – to bind the Crumbleys over for trial on charges that seek to hold them responsible for the deaths of four students killed by their son, who used a gun his parents bought him to carry out his crime.
The Crumbleys were scheduled to go to trial Jan. 17.
The defendants have long argued they are not responsible for the deaths, and maintain that the charges were improperly approved.
The prosecution disagrees.
In September, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled there was no need for an “immediate appellate review."
But the Supreme Court has ordered the issue to go back to the appeals court for further consideration.
"We remand this case to the Court of Appeals for consideration as .... to whether there was sufficient evidence of causation to bind the (Crumbleys) over for trial on the charges of involuntary manslaughter," the justices wrote in their order. "Trial court proceedings in the Oakland Circuit Court are stayed pending the completion of this appeal."
Justice Richard Bernstein disagreed with his colleagues.
"I respectfully dissent. While I recognize that this case raises a number of novel legal issues, the appellate process is designed such that many of those issues are more appropriately considered after trial, if necessary," he wrote. "I believe that considering whether the prosecutor has presented sufficient evidence of causation to support the bindover of (the Crumbleys) here before trial will not provide the Court of Appeals with a full picture of the relevant evidence and testimony."
Bernstein also expressed concerns about "unnecessarily" delaying the trial.
Multiple legal experts who have been closely monitoring the case view the Supreme Court's stay as significant.
"It disrupts the prosecution's march to trial and derails their train," said criminal defense attorney Art Weiss, who has been practicing law for four decades. "More substantively, it questions the sufficiency of the prosecution’s case."
According to Weiss, from the public's perspective, there appears to be little dispute about what happened: A teacher found troubling drawings by a student. Parents were summoned to school. They refused to take their son home. Son killed students with the gun his parents bought him.
"But does this demonstrate the parents’ conduct caused the deaths? This is the real issue," Weiss said. "Apparently the Supreme Court may have some misgivings this is sufficient for the crime of involuntary manslaughter. Was it reasonably foreseeable that purchasing the gun and refusing to take him home would cause him to kill fellow students?"
Prominent criminal defense attorney Bill Swor – who has maintained that the prosecutor is overreaching in the Crumbleys' case – also finds the Supreme Court stay noteworthy.
"It suggests that the Supreme Court has concerns about the theory under which the case is being prosecuted," Swor said. "Clearly, this theory is unprecedented."
Swor, who is on the board of directors for the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan and has practiced law for almost five decades, believes the prosecution faces an uphill battle. As he previously told the Free Press: "What the parents allegedly did — buying a gun, being careless, being terrible parents — it’s horrible. It's a disaster. But it's not a crime."
For Birmingham defense attorney Wade Fink, the timing of the Supreme Court order is noteworthy.
“Staying a case set for trial in less than two months is a very big deal and potentially signals what the Supreme Court intends to do with this case," Fink said. "Prosecutors always knew there were going to be challenges in this case. But I imagine they are, like me, surprised at the intervention prior to a trial taking place at all.”
The Oakland County Prosecutor's office cannot comment on the order as a gag order has been issued prohibiting either side from publicly discussing the case.
“The key thing here is that the Court of Appeals is now deciding whether there’s enough evidence to proceed to trial based only on a preliminary exam record, which is a proceeding where only a minimal amount of evidence is put forward to begin with," Fink said. "I think prosecutors will ask to show more evidence first before the Court of Appeals decides.”
Prosecutors allege that the Crumbleys ignored a mentally ill son who was spiraling out of control, and instead of getting him help, they bought him a gun. They also argue that the Crumbleys could have prevented the massacre had they notified the school that they had bought their son a gun on the morning they were summoned over a violent drawing he had made of a gun, blood, and the words "the thoughts won't stop, help me."
Lawyers for the Crumbleys have long argued that the couple had no idea that their son would carry out a school shooting, and that they kept the gun properly secured in a locked drawer. They also maintain the couple had no legal duty to inform the school about the gun that they had purchased.
The Supreme Court order comes one day after two former Oxford school board members leveled fresh allegations against the district, alleging there was a safety policy in place that could have prevented the shooting, but that school officials never used it, nor were they ever trained for it.
The school district is facing multiple lawsuits that allege – among other things – that school officials mishandled the shooter in the days before the shooting by allowing him to stay in school when there were several red flags that he was about to engage in violence.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan Supreme Court halts trial of James, Jennifer Crumbley