Oakland prosecutor wants to stop Crumbleys' 'I love you' talk in court

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

The Oakland County prosecutor wants to make sure James and Jennifer Crumbley don't get a chance to exchange terms of endearment during hearings and is asking a judge to make sure it doesn't happen in future court appearances.

During an in-person hearing in December, James Crumbley "with his mask partially pulled down, mouthed what appeared to be 'I love you' to defendant Jennifer Crumbley," Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald said in a motion filed to restrict the couple's communications during court proceedings in their involuntary manslaughter case.

Ethan Crumbley's parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, wave and signal to each other as they appear on video in district court 52-3, in Rochester Hills January 7, 2022.

When Jennifer Crumbley left the courtroom at that same hearing, "there were additional nonverbal communication" between her and her husband, the filing said.

The Crumbleys are charged with four counts each of involuntary manslaughter connected to the shooting deaths of Oxford High School students Madisyn Baldwin, Justin Shilling, Hana St. Juliana and Tate Myre.

David Williams, McDonald’s chief deputy prosecutor, argued in a Wednesday statement to The Detroit News that the couple's conduct in court "makes a mockery of the crimes they are accused of committing."

"The courtroom is not a place for blowing kisses and sending secret signals," Williams said. "This is a time for families to pursue justice.”

The prosecutor alleges gross negligence by the Crumbleys in allowing their son access to a firearm allegedly used in the deadly rampage. Their son, Ethan Crumbley, 15, is charged as an adult and faces 24 counts, including first-degree murder, in the deaths of the students and injury to seven others in the shooting Nov. 30 at the school.

An image of a Zoom video conference for a bond hearing shows Jennifer Crumbley, upper left, and James Crumbley, upper center; their defense attorneys Shannon Smith and Mariell Lehman, upper right; Oakland Country Prosecutor Karen McDonald, lower left; Judge Julie Nicholson, lower center; and Oakland County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Marc Keast, lower right, at 52-3 District Court in Rochester Hills on Dec. 7.

In a Zoom court hearing on Jan. 7 for the parents' bond reduction motion, a Zoom breakout session with the attorneys and the court was held, McDonald said.

"Defendants remained on screen during this breakout session and they used this opportunity to again communicate with one another," according to the filing.

"Jennifer Crumbley signaled and mouthed to the defendant James Crumbley what appeared to be 'I love you,' waved at him, and continued to signal and mouth words to him."

This image of a Zoom video conference shows Jennifer Crumbley waving to her husband James while the attorneys and judge spoke privately during a bond hearing. at 52-3 District Court in Rochester Hills on Friday, December 7, 2022.

The communication between the couple during these meetings, which are video streamed, are a "serious distraction" and are traumatic for the families of the deceased, McDonald said.

Family members of the victims, she said, have asked why the two are allowed personal communications during a court hearing.

Two veteran Metro Detroit attorneys who have handled hundreds of prosecution and defense cases have slightly different views on McDonald’s objections to the “I love you” mouthed communications between the couple.

“I think that it is ludicrous,” said Jerome Sabbota, who has been both an assistant prosecuting attorney and defense attorney in his 45-year career. “First of all, those mouthed remarks came during a breakout session when court wasn’t even in session. So what is it disrupting? If a listener is offended in some way, then they can leave the room. Just stop watching.

“Secondly, these parents haven’t been convicted of anything yet and have the presumption of innocence until proven guilty,” Sabbota added. “They have every right to communicate with each other and, if out on bond and at home, I expect they would be talking all the time to one another.”

But another longtime attorney, Todd Flood, said McDonald has every right to make such a request.

“If she (McDonald) feels actions are disruptive and upsetting the dignity of proceedings, she certainly can ask the judge to restrict communications,” said Flood, who has been an assistant prosecutor and a defense attorney for years. 

James and Jennifer Crumbley were arrested Dec. 4 after they were found inside a Detroit warehouse. They are not allowed contact with each other or their son in the Oakland County Jail where the three are being held.

The court, McDonald said, can place conditions on defendants to restrict contact with others "if the court determines the conditions are reasonably necessary to maintain the integrity of the judicial proceedings."

Last month, the Crumbleys lost their bid to have their $500,000 individual bonds reduced. 52-3 District Judge Julie Nicholson denied the request, citing the parents' ties to family in Florida, the seriousness of the alleged crimes and their flight to "an abandoned building" in Detroit.

They are named in a civil lawsuit filed by Myre's parents that includes their son along with six high school personnel.