Jenna Holm is facing prison time for the death of Bonneville County Sheriff's Deputy Wyatt Maser in May of 2020, despite the fact that Maser was killed not by Holm, but by one his fellow police officers.
Maser and his colleague, Deputy Benjamin Bottcher, were called to help Holm, who had crashed her car on a rural road on May 18 of last year. When the deputies arrived, Holm was in the street wielding a machete, screaming. Bottcher, who had interacted with Holm days prior at the Idaho Falls Behavioral Crisis Center, worked to calm her down during what was possibly a mental health crisis. After Bottcher repeatedly tased Holm, eventually subduing her, Maser was walking into the road toward Holm when a third police officer, Sergeant Randy Flegel, arrived on the scene and struck Maser with his vehicle, killing him.
Idaho State Police are now seeking to prosecute Holm for Maser's death.
"Holm's actions had deputies focused on her due to her continued refusal to put down her machete, move off the roadway, and her aggressiveness toward any vehicle or person who was near her," wrote Idaho State Police Detective Mike Cox in a probable cause affidavit. "Holm's unlawful conduct, the threat she created by wielding a machete in an aggressive manner, her perpetration of the unlawful act of aggravated assault toward Deputy Maser upon his exit of his patrol vehicle, 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."
Holm allegedly approached Maser with the weapon prior to being subdued, though she did not harm Maser or Bottcher. At the time Maser died, Holm was on the ground after having been tased for approximately a full minute.
The state brought charges using a lever similar to the felony murder rule, a controversial legal doctrine that allows prosecutors to pursue people on murder charges who didn't actually commit homicide if the death occurred during the commission of another felony. An example: An Ohio teen was charged with the murder of her boyfriend after a police officer shot him in December of 2018 during a botched robbery that she allegedly helped orchestrate.
Eugene Volokh, a professor of law at UCLA law school, says that Idaho prosecutors may have a problem winning this case.
"I'm inclined to say she shouldn't be liable because this guy, the police officer, was killed by another police officer," he says. "I think Idaho law agrees with me on that, because Idaho…adopts the agency theory."
The agency theory—as opposed to the proximate cause theory—holds that you may only be held accountable under the felony murder rule if the murder was carried out by other agents of the crime. The state adopted that line of thought in State of Idaho v. Pina, in which Juan Carlos Fuentes Pina's felony murder conviction was overturned because the actual shooter in question was not an accomplice in Pina's alleged criminal activity. In other words, had Maser been struck and killed by one of Holm's co-conspirators, Holm could be charged. But Holm had no co-conspirators.
"She's not being prosecuted for a death committed as a result of a felony, which would be murder," adds Volokh. "[It] occurred as a result of an unlawful act, which would be manslaughter. In theory, you could imagine that being treated differently….This having been said, the statute for involuntary manslaughter is very, very similar to the statute for felony murder."
Whether or not a jury will be swayed by the analysis remains to be seen. The trial was scheduled to begin on Monday but was postponed last week until February 14 of next year after Holm's attorneys, Rocky Wixom and Jordan Crane, obtained evidence they say could work in her favor.
Neither Wixom nor Crane responded to requests for comment. But the two had somewhat of a victory in June when a judge released the findings of an internal police investigation into Maser's death, which the state sought to conceal. Investigators concluded that Bottcher did not activate his emergency lights, failed to deploy his flashlight, and gave wrong directions, while Maser left off his rear red and blue lights and "stepped up into the roadway in front of Sgt. Flegel's vehicle." The report recommends roadside safety training.
Holm faces up to 30 years in prison. But as Volokh notes, one thing is not in dispute: "She didn't kill him."