Judge Dumps Felony Manslaughter Charges Brought Against An Arrestee After A Deputy Ran Over Another Deputy
from the county-prosecutors-apparently-fine-with-turning-justice-into-a-farce dept
Felony murder is a truly bizarre artifact of the American justice system. It’s simply not enough that there are thousands of laws that can be used to charge people who have allegedly broken them. But felony murder (and its offshoots, which include other crimes like manslaughter) allows prosecutors to charge people for crimes they didn’t commit.
It works like this. Two people perform a robbery. One waits in the car. The person inside the business kills someone during the robbery. Prosecutors charge the driver with “felony murder” because they can, arguing that the person’s presence at a crime scene makes them as culpable as the person who actually committed the crime.
It’s ridiculous. But it’s probably never been more ridiculous than this. Idaho resident Jenna Holm was arrested in May of last year following a traffic stop where she waved a machete at deputies and was tased into submission. During this arrest, a deputy arriving at the scene (Sgt. Randy Flagel) struck and killed Deputy Wyatt Maser with his patrol car.
Not content to deal with this unfortunate accident by mourning the officer killed in the line of duty, prosecutors decided to charge the arrestee (who was not driving and did not hit the deputy) with felony involuntary manslaughter, keeping her locked up with a $100,000 bond.
These charges stuck despite an internal investigation by the Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office finding that the officers on the scene were almost completely responsible for the accident that killed Deputy Wyatt.
Listed below are the factors contained in the judicial documents. They pertain to actions taken by deputies, Bottcher and Maser in the apprehension of Holm and possibly led to Maser’s death.
Deputy Bottcher did not activate his emergency red and blues (vehicle lights).
Deputy Bottcher never deploy(ed) his flashlight.
Deputy Bottcher gave the wrong location and wrong direction of travel throughout the call.
Deputy Maser stopped his vehicle in the lane of traffic with only scene lights turned on with no red or blue emergency lights to the rear.
Deputy Maser only used his weapon-mounted flashlight.
Deputy Maser, while giving lethal cover to Dep. Bottcher in the Taser deployment, stepped up into the roadway in front of Sgt. Flegel’s vehicle
(The vehicle of a witness in the case) was positioned to the right side of his lane with bright lights shining into oncoming traffic.
Once this became public (via Holm’s criminal trial), the Sheriff’s Office finally decided it might spend a little more time training officers on how to handle roadside incidents, especially those that take place after nightfall.
What didn’t happen was any dismissal of charges. Prosecutors still maintained Holm’s combativeness and possession of a machete were criminal acts serious enough to make her culpable for the ensuing deadly accident in which a law enforcement officer killed another law enforcement officer.
Finally, this stupidity is over. The judge handling Holm’s criminal trial has dismissed the felony involuntary manslaughter charge. (h/t Reason)
According to Judge Dane Watkins, the details of this case did not meet the standards for this kind of felony charge. Under state law, there has to be some sort of criminal conspiracy to hit people who didn’t commit crimes with criminal charges. In other words, the deputy who killed the other deputy would have had to have been conspiring with Jenna Holm — the arrestee — to commit some other crime.
“Because the state has not alleged or adduced any facts indicating Sgt. Flegel acted in the perpetration of or attempt to perpetrate an unlawful act, as part of a common plan with Holm, probable cause does not exist to believe Holm committed involuntary manslaughter,” District Judge Dane Watkins Jr. wrote in his decision.
Prosecutors maintained Holms was responsible because her actions during her arrest caused the officer to cross the road, which resulted in him being run over. There are no words that can completely encompass the stupidity of this argument, but the judge does a pretty good job summing it up:
”The standard the State seeks to impose would permit convictions of involuntary manslaughter in any number of situations where law enforcement responds to any unlawful act (presumably including minor infractions) and a third party kills (accidentally or otherwise) a responding officer or bystander…”
This is good. Better would be eliminating these laws, which makes conspiracy for one crime a conspiracy for all crimes. At best, these laws allow prosecutors to stack charges, making it more likely defendants will accept a plea deal, saving the state the burden of having to prove its allegations. At worst, it’s just a way to inflict misery on people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time while interacting with law enforcement.