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Indigent appeal counsel named for Jennifer, James Crumbley

Jennifer and James Crumbley, wearing masks,  along with their attorney sit in a courtroom, a law enforcement officer isbehind them
Paul Sancya
Jennifer Crumbley, left, and James Crumbley, right, the parents of Ethan Crumbley, a teenager accused of killing four students in a shooting at Oxford High School, appear in court for a preliminary examination on involuntary manslaughter charges in Rochester Hills, Mich. on Feb. 8, 2022.

The parents of the Oxford High School shooter have been assigned public defenders to handle their appeals of involuntary manslaughter convictions in the first-of-their-kind cases.

James and Jennifer Crumbley are the first parents in the U.S. to be held criminally liable for failing to take action to stop a mass school shooting by their child. They are both in state prisons after being found guilty of four counts apiece of involuntary manslaughter.

The process of preparing the cases, filing the requests for consideration by the Michigan Court of Appeals, further briefs and replies and – if it comes to that – oral arguments before a panel of judges will very likely continue into next year.

“The fact that there are going to be novel legal arguments I think increases the workload,” said Alona Sharon, the attorney assigned to James Crumbley. “Every transcript has to be reviewed, every pleading, every piece of paper, every video. And then interviewing potential witnesses, interviewing the trial counsel. At this point, I can’t even imagine the number of hours that are going to be required.”

And the appellate lawyers have yet to see any of those documents, said Michael Dezsi, Jennifer Crumbley’s appeals attorney. He said those are necessary to look for mistakes, missed opportunities during the trials or anything else that might serve as grounds for appeals.

Prosecutors convinced two separate Oakland County juries the parents failed to secure the semi-automatic handgun used in the shooting that left four students dead and seven other people injured. The shooter is serving a sentence of life with no chance of parole after pleading guilty to charges including murder and terrorism.

“I have to obtain all of the transcripts from all of the pre-trial hearings as well as all of the trial hearings, which then will help me discern what issues might be raised on appeal, what issues that might be challenged, evidentiary rulings – what evidence that was admitted that we might challenge on appeal,” Dezsi said. “So that will be the first step, just getting all of the transcripts.”

The appellate lawyers said they will also review the evidence and proceedings that led to the shooter’s guilty plea.

The Crumbleys hired their own attorneys to defend them in separate jury trials in the Oakland County Circuit Court. Their publicly funded appeals attorneys were assigned to them through the Michigan Appellate Assigned Counsel System.

The Crumbleys’ trial lawyers are not part of the appeals team for either of the parents. That’s because appellate law is its own specialized area and effective assistance of counsel is often an issue in appeals of criminal convictions.

Oakland County Chief Assistant Prosecutor David Williams said the Crumbley appeals are expected and he is confident the convictions will stand.

“Nearly every defendant who is convicted at trial files an appeal,” he said, and based on legal precedents as well as the evidence, Williams said, “we believe these convictions will be upheld.”

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987. His journalism background includes stints with UPI, The Elizabeth (NJ) Daily Journal, The (Pontiac, MI) Oakland Press, and WJR. He is also a lifelong public radio listener.
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