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Trial begins for James Crumbley, Michigan high school shooter's father

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Jury selection began today in Michigan for the trial of a father whose teenage son shot to death four of his classmates. He also wounded seven others at Oxford High School in 2021. The trial comes only weeks after the shooter's mother was found guilty of four counts of involuntary manslaughter. Quinn Klinefelter of member station WDET reports.

QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: Before the trial for James Crumbley began, his attorneys asked for a change of venue. The judge denied the motion. But it might be hard to find a prospective juror in all of Michigan's Oakland County who has not heard about the shooting at Oxford High or does not have an opinion about the parents who prosecutors accuse of ignoring their son's mental health needs and instead buying him a handgun as a present. It might be even more difficult because teenager Ethan Crumbley pleaded guilty to the mass murders and told prosecutors in the courtroom that day he had no trouble gaining access to the gun.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARC KEAST: Is it true, on November the 30, 2021, when you obtained the firearm, it was not kept in a locked container or a safe?

ETHAN CRUMBLEY: Yes, it was not locked.

KLINEFELTER: That alleged carelessness with storing the weapon is one reason prosecutors took the rare step of charging Crumbley's parents with involuntary manslaughter. Last month, Jennifer Crumbley took the stand in her own trial and told her defense she was not to blame for the crime her son committed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHANNON SMITH: Who is responsible for storing the gun?

JENNIFER CRUMBLEY: My husband is. I just didn't feel comfortable being in charge of that. It was more his thing, so I let him handle that.

KLINEFELTER: A jury found her guilty anyway of the same involuntary manslaughter charges that James Crumbley now faces. Prosecutors indicate they'll present some of the same evidence during his trial, including journal entries and text messages his son sent to a friend, claiming James Crumbley would not take Ethan to a doctor, but rather gave him some pills and told him to, quote, "suck it up." Defense attorneys argue it's not fair to use that evidence since they cannot question Ethan Crumbley about it. He's weighing an appeal of his life sentence and won't testify. But some legal experts say James Crumbley still may have an advantage in his trial.

EKOW YANKAH: You have a new jury. You've got slightly more, perhaps, sympathetic defendant.

KLINEFELTER: University of Michigan law professor Ekow Yankah notes prosecutors portrayed Jennifer Crumbley as indifferent to her son. But testimony revealed James Crumbley was dealing with the death of his mother, and video showed him repeatedly telling his son he loved him. Yankah says that's information Crumbley's defense team will likely use as well.

YANKAH: And the fact that they have seen this trial before, the fact that they're going to know the prosecution's evidence and even points of emphasis.

KLINEFELTER: Yet Yankah says the prosecution has a strong argument against James Crumbley - namely that he and his wife could have stopped their son from going on a killing spree at Oxford High if they had only taken a few small steps - if they had taken him home from school the day of the shooting or told officials they had just bought him a gun or not laughed off news that he was looking up bullets on his phone during class.

YANKAH: When parents beforehand are teasing and joking about whether or not their son is researching ammunition, what they're ignoring is broken and dead bodies on the other side. Any prosecutor wants to bring that home.

KLINEFELTER: He adds that James Crumbley's trial could change a legal precedent just set in his wife's case. That jury held Jennifer Crumbley criminally responsible for the actions of her son. If a new jury finds James Crumbley innocent of those charges, judges might say the first verdict was simply an outlier. For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter in Detroit.

(SOUNDBITE OF AKON SONG, "CRACK ROCK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Quinn Klinefelter