A woman was charged with manslaughter in Idaho after being accused of murdering a fellow officer.
Bonneville County Sheriff’s deputy Wyatt Maser was killed in May last year when his colleague Sergeant Randy Flagel accidentally struck him with the police cruiser. In response, the state decided someone needed to pay—and they zeroed in on Jenna Holm, the woman lying on the ground nearby.
Holm was not able to kill Maser after he had been repeatedly tased. Holm, who had been carrying a machete in an attempt to aid her through a possible mental illness, was being assisted by the officers. Her attorneys claim that she had the machete to protect her vehicle in rural areas after her car broke down. While she did not inflict injury on any officers, Benjamin Bottcher was another officer who had to subdue the woman for about a minute. Maser reached her across the street and handcuffed her after she had fallen to the ground. Flagel arrived at his vehicle to confront Flagel.
“Holm’s unlawful conduct…therefore constitutes by statute, that Holm committed involuntary manslaughter when Deputy Maser was struck and killed while trying to detain Holm and make safe a situation Holm was actively creating,” wrote Idaho State Police Detective Mike Cox in a probable cause affidavit.
Internal police investigations revealed that they had violated safety protocols when securing the roadway that night. They concluded that Maser failed to activate his rear-emergency lights and that Bottcher had given wrong directions. Bottcher failed to switch on his emergency lights and did not use his flashlight. Although they tried to keep these findings secret from Holm’s defence, they failed to succeed and were released in June.
However, Judge Dane Watkins Jr. from Idaho’s 7th Judicial District ruled in favor of Holm. The case was thrown out because Holm did not have enough evidence. Instead the allegations were unconstitutional as per Idaho law precedent.
As it stands, the framework within which these charges may be brought is complicated. It is also called the “felony murder rule” and allows the state the power to bring criminal charges against people for crimes they did not technically commit. Practically, this is how Ohio could charge a teenager with murder following the shooting of her boyfriend. He was accused of committing a robbery that she was involved in. Holm was charged for manslaughter after she was accused of committing an “unlawful action.”
But as I wrote last month, trying to blame Holm for Maser’s untimely death didn’t make sense even in the context of the already-controversial doctrine. Idaho uses the Agency Theory, which states that the state cannot wrap up innocent bystanders who are involved in homicide plots. Only if they were accomplices in the murder. This was a firm rule. Pina v. State of IdahoIn which the highest Idaho court ruled Juan Carlos Pina was not guilty of felony murder, as Pina had never been involved in Pina’s crime.
Simply put, Holm could have been found guilty of manslaughter if she had been complicit with Flagel. This was clearly not the case.
Watkins resisted the accusations with this in mind. The state hasn’t alleged nor adduced any facts that would indicate Sgt. Flegel did not act in the commission of an illegal act or attempted to commit it as part of a plan with Holm,” Flegel stated. “Probable cause doesn’t exist for Holm to have committed involuntary murderer.”
It is difficult to hold the state responsible. Legal doctrines such as qualified immunity or absolute immunity can often protect police officers from being held accountable for their actions. Maser died that night in a terrible accident. Despite the fact that an internal investigation was conducted by police, it is possible no one deserves to be held accountable. But the state’s attempt to prosecute a bystander—a woman the police were there to Get help—is a good reminder of just how far they’ll go to evade meaningful introspection.