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Historic Trial To Determine If School Shooter's Parents Bear Responsibility For Son's Actions; Austin Addresses Hospital Stay: "I Did Not Handle This Right"; Biden In Michigan To Court Union Vote In Critical State For Election. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired February 01, 2024 - 15:00   ET


BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: Oxford, Michigan high school shooter, has been testifying in her own defense, some really revealing moments in court about her personal life and her thoughts about what her son was going through in the months before the shooting and the same day that the shooting took place.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Yet, so much of what she's saying too certainly looks very different through the prism of what we know now. But also there are questions about whether she knew enough ...


KEILAR: ... right? That she could have intervened at the time. And there's this question of the access to the gun, which she's very much been pushing off onto her husband who will face trial next month, and ignoring the mental health needs of her son, Ethan Crumbley. The meeting at the school just a couple hours before the shooting is really key to that and that is what she has been on the stand talking about.

So let's discuss this with our reporters and analysts who can join us on this. We have Jean Casarez, Areva Martin and Joey Jackson with us.

Jean, just to you first, this meeting is really a linchpin of this case. What stood out to you?

JEAN CASAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, what stood out to me was the night before. The night before the meeting, Ethan had gotten a D in geometry. They had a big argument at home. His phone was taken away from him. They said, you're not going to be able to go to the shooting range at all until those grades go up.

Now, we had heard on the prosecution's case that he was locked out. Locked out of what? We don't really know. But it was a bad argument. So the next morning, she gets this text from the counselor, and she sees the drawing. And she testified that she was very angry when she saw the drawing, and she took it personally.

So did she interpret that drawing that from his anger the night before that he was drawing a picture of just his rebellion against the parents' discipline that night before? That's what it appeared as, though. Now, she made it sort of - I mean, she said she was concerned at the meeting. But she made the meeting, and she had texted this to Brian also, that it was just sort of a calm meeting.

And so that demeanor is different from what we had heard before, that it was a little more concerning. But the counselor admitted that he was concerned about suicide. That's what he was concerned about. Nobody ever mentioned a mass shooting.

SANCHEZ: Areva, I'm curious to get your perspective on her remarks about what took place at this meeting, because she is saying that school administrators told her that her son was at a risk, and she thought that school officials were giving her sound advice, and that ultimately she felt that the meeting ended productively, that it didn't end abruptly, as some school counselors have said and have testified that they felt she was inconvenienced by having to go to the school that day. What do you make of her characterization of what took place versus the other testimony that we've heard?

AREVA MARTIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Jennifer's testimony throughout this morning has been someone who's trying to minimize everything that we've heard in this case, minimize all the text messages, minimize the emails and minimize the conduct. She's blaming everyone. She made that reference to her husband drinking and perhaps being depressed. She's made references to the school of perhaps not doing their job. She made a reference to Brian or some reference about him maybe having a poor memory.

So the strategy here is clearly blame everyone and accept no responsibility. Deny any knowledge about any mental health or emotional issues that her son may have been having. She denies seeing text messages and other written documents that clearly indicated that this young man was having some issues, even so much as giving us this explanation that, well, he saw things in the house and we had this little game that we played around ghosts.

So nothing seemed to be an issue for this mother. And I'm just not sure that everything we've learned about this kid that jurors are buying that this mother was even - was either so oblivious or she has this way of just making everything seem so normal when it really wasn't.

KEILAR: And Joey, I wonder what you think so far about what you've heard, what parts maybe are going to work in favor of Jennifer Crumbley and what parts she has not been able to explain away?

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, Brianna. So from a defense perspective, what you want to do is to put matters in context. Context matters, right? And so if you look at the evidence, this case will be really decided on three pillars. The first pillar is that of foreseeability. Should she have foreseen that that is Jennifer Crumbley, that her son could engage in this type of behavior, even with having access to a gun that was potentially hidden.

Number two, and moving on from the issue of foreseeability, to what extent did she have notice of her son's mental health maladies and other issues. And number three, did she act reasonably. It's really unusual in a case to have the defense say in opening statements that my client's going to testify, they committed to it, and here she is. [15:05:05]

But to the core of your question, Brianna, I think a few other things stand out. You talk about these school communications that - where the school's communicating with each other, what are they saying? A, he's having a rough time. B, he's sleeping in class, right, they're talking about that. C, his family is a mistake.

Well, all of that is highly relevant, but did they ever inform the mother of that? And if they didn't inform the mother, how would she be expected or anticipated to address that in any way, form or fashion? So that's big in terms of context.

Number two, if we just are sitting here talking about haunted houses and things flying off the shelves without knowing that the house was built in 1920, that internally they would joke about it, that the circuit breaker was cut off while they played with the Ouija board. Well, if you just talk about things flying off shelves, oh my goodness, he has a health problem. But she put it in context. What the context is that?

Look, this is generally what we do. And so I think all of these things on balance, leaving off, right, to what we heard about the meeting, hey, it was a meeting. The school said that he wasn't a risk. You know what? We'll address the issue. And so at the end of the day, I'll stop where I began. Should she have foreseen this will be the defense, right? And was she on notice of this and did she act reasonably under these circumstances? They're arguing that she should have and at the end of the day, you know what, she's maybe not the best mother, a mother of the year, but she shouldn't be criminalized for it and that's the defense's perspective. And that's what the jury is going to have to buy if she's to be acquitted.

SANCHEZ: Jean, I want to expand on something that Brianna had mentioned a moment ago, and that is the defense questioning her about her awareness and her knowledge of how the gun that was given to Ethan for Christmas that year was kept. She specifically said that it was up to her husband to handle it, that weapons made her uncomfortable at home. Walk us through that testimony, because that could be critical.

CASAREZ: Well, we aren't going to get James in that courtroom to refute it, right? And so she is saying that she had only been to the shooting range once before, that guns really weren't her thing. Horses were her thing, that's what we know about that. And so, James mainly handle the gun. I think to a lot of jurors, that may make sense.

You know what's very interesting, another point, this is a suburb of Detroit, all right? But apparently, we heard in this trial through testimony from the school, dean, actually, that a very big sport with peoples in the community is hunting. And that a lot of the students at the high school go hunting with their families or their fathers before school starts.

And so they put out a notice every year saying, if you go to hunt before class, be sure not to come to school in your camo and be sure not to bring your weapon, your hunting rifle with you to class. So that's another thing. This jury is made up of people from this community, Oxford, of Pontiac, Michigan. And so that is something to also take into consideration here.

And so a lot of jurors may say, my husband handles the guns. I do understand that. So they may say that's the way it's done in our house too.

KEILAR: Is it, Areva, incumbent on her to - and maybe it's not - but is it incumbent on her since it is in her house and she has the awareness of the purchase and of the use to take more of an active role?

MARTIN: You would think, Brianna, obviously there is no law that says if you have a gun in your house, you must do X, you must do Y. That's not an issue in this trial. But it's just curious to me that she says guns aren't her thing. She knows that her son has a gun. She doesn't know where the gun is. She testified that the gun may be in the bedroom where the lock to the case may be in a beer stein in the kitchen. She wasn't really clear about that.

And it just strikes me and I think jurors sitting there are going to wonder, how come this mother didn't mention to the school in this meeting, we did get that gun for Ethan for Christmas. And we just want to make sure that given these drawings and given what you've told us that the gun is still safe.

So maybe, honey, you stay here. I'm going to go check for the gun or anything like that. I just can't imagine that some juror is not going to want this mother with this history to have taken that really simple step and to have at least alerted the school about the possibility that the gun might have been removed, because she really doesn't know because she's not in the chain of custody of the gun because, as Jean said, guns aren't her thing.

SANCHEZ: Areva, Jean, Joey, please stay with us. I know you want to respond, Joey, but we do have some other news that we have to fit in. We'll, of course, monitor what is happening in the courtroom and keep an eye on that. Please stand by because there is a lot happening in the world.


And this morning, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke publicly for the first time since his complications from prostate cancer landed him or rather prostate cancer treatment landed him in the hospital about a month ago. He apologized for failing to notify the public and the President of that days' long hospitalization.

KEILAR: And now he is back to leading the Pentagon in-person as it prepares to respond to the drone strike by Iran-backed proxies that killed three U.S. soldiers over the weekend. CNN has learned Iranian leaders were caught off guard by the attack and that they are nervous about the consequences of this attack.

We have CNN's Oren Liebermann at the Pentagon for us.

Oren, what have you learned about the mindset of these leaders in Tehran?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, according to U.S. officials who have spoken with CNN, Iran doesn't have full control over its proxies in the region. In Iraq and Syria, frankly, it doesn't have full control over the Houthis as well. And the actions we have seen, that is, a drone strike that killed three U.S. service members, has concerned Iranian leaders because of the potential for escalation. It shows the idea that though Iran equips, trains, funds, supplies, all of these different groups, it doesn't fully control their actions and that's why you see officials saying that Iran doesn't want an escalation in the region.

Now, with that drone strike that killed three U.S. service members on Sunday, an escalation very much a possibility, with the U.S. promising to respond and officials telling us that response will be more powerful than what we've seen in previous U.S. strikes in Iraq and Syria. Iran very much aware of that, and this is a situation they were trying to avoid, just as the U.S. has been keen to avoid an open regional war, Iranian leaders, according to U.S. officials, are also keen to avoid that war.

It's interesting, Oren, I wonder if this lays some groundwork for maybe what we may be anticipating when it comes to the response of the U.S. If you have officials saying they believe Iran was surprised, it seems they might be less inclined to do something more direct with Iran rather than hitting the proxies.

LIEBERMANN: Well, officials have made clear they hold Iran ultimately responsible. The White House did say yesterday that they're blaming the direct attribution for the attack on an umbrella group of Iran- backed proxies. But there is quite a bit of a spectrum there short of directly attacking Iran itself, going right after Iranian territory or striking the capital of Iran. And that's because Iran has assets, Iran has the proxies and the U.S. can go after those in Iraq, Syria, frankly, Yemen. Unlikely they'd go after Hezbollah in Lebanon, but that's an option, too, and that's because of Iran's reach in the region.

So there are plenty of ways, frankly, to go after Iran and their abilities, their capabilities, capabilities throughout the region without striking Iran itself. And I think that's what we're likely to see as the U.S. makes clear that this will be a multi-phased approach, perhaps a wave of strikes carried out against targets that might not be directly Iran, but are clearly linked to Iran.

KEILAR: All right. Oren Liebermann live for us at the Pentagon. Thank you for that.

And another story we're staying on top of, President Biden making this visit today to Michigan, obviously a key state politically. And he's expected to meet there with members of the United Auto Workers union.

SANCHEZ: The state could be critical to his reelection campaign. And this key block of voters that he's meeting with, union workers, could be instrumental in winning in 2024 as he takes on the likely Republican challenger, Donald Trump. CNN's MJ Lee is live for us from Detroit.

M.J., what more are we expecting from the President's trip today?

MJ LEE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Boris, the President has just arrived here in the Detroit area where the main purpose of the trip really is to capitalize on that UAW endorsement that the President received last week. He is going to be meeting with members of that union group in just a little bit. But before that, we saw him stopping by at a local restaurant just to mingle and chat with some of the local residents, as he is, of course, trying to court some of these voters in this very critical battleground state of Michigan, as you mentioned.

So, from the campaign's perspective, the main purpose really is to court and go after some of these working-class union voters that are going to be so critical to determining the outcome of the election in a state like this. But I think in the background, of course, is this issue with Arab American voters here in the state. They make up a big segment of the population here who, of course, many of whom have expressed a lot of anger, a lot of frustration about the situation with the Israel-Hamas war.

And many of them have expressed their anger directly at the President, saying that they see sort of his continued support for Israel as making him in part complicit for the humanitarian crisis that we have seen in Gaza.


And plenty of them have said that they are even considering and willing to withhold their support, support that they might have given President Biden back in 2020 when it comes time to vote again in the 2024 election.

So, we are seeing really these two major and very important voting blocs coming to play here and really coming into clear focus as he again comes here to this state of Michigan to capitalize on that UAW endorsement that we saw last week. So, we'll see what kinds of conversations he has with these members. We are told that it is meant to be more of an informal setting. He's not going to be giving sort of formal remarks.

And certainly a state where the White House is trying to emphasize, he'll be back and senior administration officials will be back as well, in particular to have those ongoing conversations with Arab and Muslim leaders in the community and hear out their concerns. Again, these concerns that have been really intensifying as the Israel-Hamas war has been raging on, guys?

SANCHEZ: Yes, one of what will likely be many trips to Michigan this year for President Biden.

MJ Lee, traveling with the President. Thank you so much, MJ.

We're still following breaking news out of Michigan where Jennifer Crumbley is testifying in this historic trial and it's testing whether the parents of a school shooter could be held accountable for their actions. We have more of her testimony in just a few moments.



SANCHEZ: They said it would be about a 10-minute break. It's been roughly 20 minutes or so. At any moment, testimony is going to continue from Jennifer Crumbley, the mother of the Oxford Michigan high school shooter. She's testifying here in her own defense.

KEILAR: And we have Jean Casarez, Areva Martin and Joey Jackson back with us.

Joey, talk to us a little bit about what has stood out to you so far.

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, a number of things have. I mean, first, when you look at, we'll take it backwards, they were talking about the school and the meeting at the school. Now, obviously, that meeting is significant. What meeting am I referencing? I'm referencing the meeting when James Crumbley, the husband, and Jennifer were called back, the mother who's on trial now, to talk about the drawing of their son that had the blood on it, that had the gun. And it was significant, why are they there?

She, Jennifer, is saying that she left the meeting calmly, it was not abrupt, and she felt that there wasn't a security threat. But what's very significant at that point, and we heard it in other testimony, is that the school had the ability, not only her, to raise in the - an issue about the gun in that meeting, but if there's a drawing of the gun for the school to ask, hey, does he have access to a gun? Are you aware of a gun? And it doesn't stop there. The school got the backpack.

You heard testimony previously from today that the dean got his backpack, that is, Ethan Crumbley, and handed it to him. Was it searched? Why wasn't it searched? Should there have been a search of that? Should there have been inquiries of the school based upon that? (Inaudible) very important (inaudible) stood out the issue pertaining to, obviously, when in context to these discussions about his hallucinations, was he having hallucinations predicated upon being mentally ill, was he having hallucinations or anything else, was he playing tricks with them as he always did. That stood out.

Again, context as to what was important. And so all these things go to notice and with the school having information that their son's having a problem, it would have been nice if he's having a rough time, if he wasn't sleeping and other things, to inform the parents that never happened. And so it goes to the issue of blame, last point. And that is that she, Jennifer Crumbley, indicated that, look, she's not much into guns. It is the husband who purchased the weapon and the husband who hid the weapon from them. And so I think the defense is making the case that this was not foreseeable, she would not have known and she acted reasonably and non-criminally under these circumstances. SANCHEZ: Areva, to Joey's last point, part of the reason that this case is so important is because it could set a future precedent. And I'm not talking the distant future, I'm talking in just about six or seven weeks when her husband is set to be tried for four counts of involuntary manslaughter. How could this case potentially impact that one and the testimony that we hear today, what impact could that have down the road?

MARTIN: Well, as we've been saying throughout the morning, this could be a historic case because traditionally in our jurisprudence, parents are not held liable, criminally liable, that is, for the intentional shootings or acts of their children. This would be a case of first impression. Definitely would send a very, I think, a clear message to parents that you have to be alert, that you have to be involved, you have to be engaged and that you do have a duty.

I'm a little troubled by this notion, though, that the defense believes that this mom could somehow abdicate her responsibility as a parent because she's not into guns. Because I'm thinking as a parent, well, if you're not into guns, maybe you wouldn't let guns come into your house. Maybe you would have some different rules about your guns that come into your house. I know this is a community where guns are prevalent and people do go hunting as a normal course of their activities.

But still, we've seen so many mass shootings in this country. We've seen kids come onto campuses with guns, so I think there should have been a heightened sense of awareness on the part of these parents, even that parent that says she wasn't into guns. And I think as you - Boris, in terms of what's going to happen at her husband's trial, there's going to be a lot of evidence, obviously, that will have to be produced by the prosecutors that he, too, should have used a greater level of care in terms of how that gun was handled and what access to the gun.


Because it's still not clear how did Ethan find the key that was allegedly hidden in a beer stein. How did he get that key and how was he able to unlock that gun without either of these parents knowing that he had the gun on his person on the day that this horrific shooting took place?

KEILAR: Yes. And to that point, Jean, it was unclear whether it was just known that the key was in a beer stein and like a mug in the house, so in essence, readily accessible to the shooter in this case.

CASAREZ: Well, here's what's interesting. There's a text, and it's not coming into this trial. The defense wanted to get it in. It was from his, texting with his friend or his journal, and he says, I got to find where my father hid that key. And it's not coming in because it - because he's got a Fifth Amendment privilege, and if you let that in, it opens the door, the prosecution argued, to the entire journal. It's as if Ethan was testifying and he has exerted his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, so the jury is not going to hear that from his text. I got to find the key that my father hid. But I want to talk about one thing Joey said, because I want to look at the facts here. Everybody has to hear this. At the school, all right, on that Monday, he was researching bullets. It was in his English class. The English teacher told the counselor and the dean, everybody, that it just made her remember that his writings that September, that fall, had been of a violent nature. And then at some point right around that time in school, he was watching a video of somebody killing somebody. And then you've got the math worksheet on Tuesday. The school never told Jennifer any of that.

And when they went to the school about that math worksheet, she wasn't told about the video he was watching of somebody killing somebody. He wasn't told about the English teacher saying, geez, this semester he's really been writing his violent tendencies in his English papers. She didn't hear any of that. And there has been a very big issue with the families in Oxford about the inaction of the school.

And that day, the dean is the one that carried the backpack from math class, gave it back to Ethan. Question was, why didn't you open it up? No reasonable suspicion, he said.

KEILAR: Yes, very questionable. I mean, to your point, a judge and there are so many parents who look to the school and say you did not do right here. And the independent review of what happened, the 600 page report plus found that the school failed to provide a safe and secure environment. But a circuit judge also finding that the school is protected from civil lawsuits because obviously school employees there, they're government employees. But there is a lot of blame that has been found there in that report.

If you guys could stand by for us, we would certainly appreciate it. We are waiting for this to get underway again. This trial, four counts of involuntary manslaughter that Jennifer Crumbley is facing and what could be a historic trial if she is held responsible for the shooting that her son perpetrated in - at Oxford High School in Michigan in 2021. Stay with us. We'll be right back.