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Prosecutor in Crumbley case cautions charges are the exception, not the norm

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The parents of a mass school shooter were sentenced to 10 to 15 years in prison today. James and Jennifer Crumbley are believed to be the first parents to ever be charged and then convicted for a mass school shooting that their son committed. The Crumbley court cases have raised questions about whether parents can be criminally punished for school shootings carried out by their children, as such incidents become increasingly common in the U.S. Karen McDonald prosecuted these cases in Oakland County, Mich., and joins us now. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

KAREN MCDONALD: Good afternoon.

CHANG: Good afternoon. So I just want to remind everyone this case concerned the events of November 30, 2021, when the Crumbleys' son killed four of his high school classmates with a handgun that his parents had bought him just days earlier. Let me ask you, does 10 to 15 years in prison feel like the right punishment for the parents in this case?

MCDONALD: Well, nothing's going to bring back those children. And we do what we can to seek justice. But it's more of an acknowledgement, I think, of the catastrophic impact of the gross negligence of both parents. And so it is important to the victims. I think it's really important to highlight that while it is the first conviction of parents for a school shooting, which I didn't even contemplate when we charged this case, it's really also a very, very rare and egregious set of facts. Any mass shooting, particularly a school shooting and particularly when the shooter is a minor, the very first question on all our minds is where did he get that gun? And that question led to some really disturbing facts.

CHANG: What do you see as the possible risks or unintended consequences of using the criminal justice system to go after parents of school shooters?

MCDONALD: You know, I don't like to hear the commentary that suggests that it's opening the door to criminalizing bad parenting or could be used in a disparate way. I would hope that any district attorney or prosecutor faced with these same facts would recognize the very important duty they have to not bring criminal charges without this rare set of facts.

CHANG: But do you believe that there is a point where blaming the parent is unfair when a child is struggling with severe mental health challenges?

MCDONALD: Absolutely. But that's not what this case is about. They weren't charged because their child or their son was struggling with mental health issues. They weren't even charged simply on the fact that he used a gun to kill other people. They were charged and convicted based on all of the giant warning signs and complete lack of action to take care of those issues and then in addition, buy him a 9 mm handgun, brag about it on social media as his present, give him access to it and then when called to the school, where there were clear signs that something is wrong, never disclose that they had just purchased this weapon. All of these facts together are very rare. But, you know, listen, I have five kids. I've raised five teenagers. I would never stand for the proposition that we should be held accountable for what our kids do, and that's just simply not what the case was about.

CHANG: Have you heard from other prosecutors elsewhere in the country who might use your case in Michigan as a model?

MCDONALD: I talk to other prosecutors frequently. And I am not a walking promotion for charging parents for the shootings committed by their kids. We have that scenario where minors get ahold of weapons and use them to commit criminal acts all the time. It rarely, rarely results in a criminal charge. So I would - and certainly would encourage any prosecutor to use the incredible power and duty we have to do the right thing. But no, we don't stand for the proposition that the parents should now be criminally responsible for what their kids do.

CHANG: That is Oakland County prosecutor Karen McDonald. Thank you very much for joining us once again.

MCDONALD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Sarah Handel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.