Expressing "great concern" of a mistrial happening, a judge said Tuesday that she is appointing an independent counsel for the parents of alleged Michigan school shooter Ethan Crumbley to explain potential conflicts of interest the couple could encounter by sharing attorneys from the same law firm.
Jennifer and James Crumbley are both charged with multiple counts of involuntary manslaughter stemming from the Nov. 30, 2021, mass shooting at Oxford High School in the Detroit suburb of Oxford Township.
During a brief hearing Tuesday morning, Judge Cheryl Matthews told the Crumbleys she will appoint each of them an attorney to advise them, not necessarily to replace their current lawyers.
"Joint representation of co-defendants charged in criminal matters by attorneys from the same law firm is uncommon," Matthews told the couple. "There is great concern that there may be a conflict of interest as incompatibility positions may arise at any moment."
The issue was first raised by prosecutors, who filed a motion arguing that if convicted the Crumbleys could seek an appeal based on a conflict of interest from the representation of either of their attorneys.
Matthews delayed a hearing on the motion and instead asked the Crumbleys to meet with court-appointed lawyers to advise them on any potential conflicts of interest.
Matthews told the couple she is attempting to protect their rights and avoid the possibility of a mistrial due to a conflict, adding that if that occurred, "We'd be back to square one."
"I'm trying to avoid your rights being implicated in a negative way," Matthews told the couple. "I'm also trying to avoid recreating or going backwards in this case."
She scheduled the next court hearing for April 5 and told the Crumbleys she will ask them for written waivers if they decide to keep their attorneys.
Jennifer Crumbley is represented by Shannon Smith, who did not attend Tuesday's hearing due to illness. James Crumbley's lawyer is Mariell Lehman. Both are partners in the Smith Lehman firm in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
The parents were each charged in December with four counts of involuntary manslaughter. Their son, 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley, allegedly used a semi-automatic handgun his parents bought him in the shooting that killed four students and injured seven.
The Crumbleys have pleaded not guilty to the charges.
"They could have stopped it and they had every reason to know he was dangerous," Oakland County prosecutor Karen McDonald said at the couple's arraignment in December.
Ethan Crumbley was with his father when James Crumbley bought the 9-mm Sig Sauer pistol on Nov. 26, 2021, prosecutors allege. The teen posted photos of the gun on social media, writing, "Just got my new beauty today," prosecutors said. Jennifer Crumbley also posted online about testing the gun out with her son, according to prosecutors.