Power & Market

The Michigan Verdict Is “Groundbreaking” as in Burying the Law

In convicting James Crumbley of involuntary manslaughter yesterday, a Michigan jury’s verdict was “groundbreaking,” according to CNN. While the term was meant to describe a “new direction” in the application of criminal law, perhaps it is more appropriate to think of the jury’s actions as breaking ground in an attempt to bury what is left of the criminal law this country inherited from England.

That is not a good thing. For all the faults in the application of US criminal law, the courts have recognized the boundaries that the law and those engaged in prosecution of alleged crimes must have to keep the system from turning into little more than show trials. If the verdicts against Crumbley and his wife are permitted to stand, then the courts will be endorsing criminal convictions against someone who did not violate statutory law and permit convictions based upon feelings and sentiment.

According to the New York Times:

A jury found James Crumbley guilty of involuntary manslaughter late Thursday over his failure to prevent his teenage son from killing four fellow students and wounding seven others in Michigan’s deadliest school shooting.

Mr. Crumbley and his wife, Jennifer Crumbley, who was found guilty on identical charges in a separate trial last month, are the first parents in the country to be directly charged for the deaths caused by their child in a mass shooting.

Their prosecutions were seen as part of a national effort to hold some parents responsible for enabling deadly violence by their children. In the Crumbleys’ trials, “the prosecution here found a successful playbook,” said Mark D. Chutkow, a lawyer and former federal prosecutor in Michigan.

While I am not an attorney, I have written on the law enough to know how criminal and civil law differ in this country. Civil law as practiced in the states falls under common law, where decisions by the courts help to shape the law, both written and unwritten. Criminal law, however, is and always has been statutory. If someone is charged with a crime, one’s actions must fall under the language and description of a particular statute, and nothing that either parent did regarding involuntary manslaughter meets that standard.

Yet, both have been convicted of breaking a specific criminal statute in Michigan law. The NYT says:

Prosecutors argued that the Crumbleys ignored warning signs about the massacre, painting Ms. Crumbley as a detached and negligent mother, and accusing Mr. Crumbley of failing to secure the gun used in the shooting.

“James Crumbley was presented with the easiest, most glaring opportunities to prevent the deaths of these four students,” Karen McDonald, the prosecutor in Oakland County, said in closing arguments on Wednesday. “And he did nothing.”

The above paragraphs form the basis of the criminal convictions against Crumley and his wife, yet nothing here points to the violation of statutory criminal law. Even if the description of the parents as being “detached and negligent” is true, being “detached and negligent” is not a crime.

Or take prosecutor Karen McDonald’s statement, which should never have been permitted to be uttered in a court of law. Her unspoken directive is this: He should have known his son was going to go on a shooting rampage at his school. Thus, he should have stopped his son from doing it.

Now, had Crumley’s son told his father that he planned to shoot up his school and that one could see it was a credible threat, then Crumley would have had the legal duty to try to stop him, with all legal penalties attached for failure to do so. However, if Crumley were guilty of a crime for not knowing that his son was planning the shooting, then school officials who dealt with the boy on a regular basis also should have known, given they are the so-called experts on child behavior, yet prosecutors decided not to charge their fellow government employees.

Furthermore, at the time of the shooting, Michigan did not have a law requiring “safe” gun storage. This is important because prosecutors didn’t charge Crumley with anything related to the gun purchase or how he stored it, nor could prosecutors have done so, given the law at the time.

So, how did they claim the Crumbleys violated the involuntary manslaughter statute? They did it by applying the legal standards of civil law to criminal law. Understand that it is not legal to do so. Under civil law, it would not be hard to find the Crumbleys liable with all civil penalties following, but it is quite another thing to apply the looser standards of civil law to criminal law, which is exactly what the Michigan court has done.

As CNN has pointed out, prosecutors around the country are now being emboldened by the verdict and that we can expect the courts to continue to do an end run around the legislatures:

“We’re living in a new world now, and that new world is a prosecutor saying, ‘If we’re not going to have legislation, if we’re not going to have significant protections, we’re going to take it upon ourselves to use the law in a way that gets accountability to everyone and anyone who could have potentially been involved,’” CNN legal analyst Joey Jackson told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Thursday evening.

Indeed, we really are living in a “new world,” as far as the law is concerned. It is just that in the name of progressive prosecution, the law as it is written no longer matters. What matters is how a prosecutor, aided by cowardly and corrupt judges and even more corrupt journalists, can make up their own laws as they go along.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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