Friday, June 21, 2024

Man found guilty of trying to kill state trooper

The Western News | April 19, 2024 3:00 PM

A jury hearing the case against a Eureka man accused of trying to kill Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Lewis Johnson in 2023 found him guilty of all counts Friday afternoon in the Lincoln County Courthouse.

Jason Allen Miller, 42, was judged guilty by a jury of eight women and four men of felony charges of attempted deliberate homicide, criminal endangerment, aggravated kidnapping, possession of dangerous drugs and criminal mischief.

Tpr. Johnson suffered life-threatening injuries in the incident near Rexford and is still recovering after returning home to Chester, Montana in October 2023.

Jurors hearing the case began deliberating late Friday morning and returned with a verdict after about two total hours. They were unanimous in their verdicts.

Flathead County District Judge Danni Coffman, hearing the case in place of Lincoln County District Judge Matt Cuffe, ordered a pre-sentence investigation and tentatively scheduled sentencing for 2 p.m. Wednesday, June 5.

Miller is facing the potential of serving the rest of his life in prison. A conviction on the attempted deliberate homicide and aggravated kidnapping charges may result in a maximum term of 100 years in the Montana State Prison. He also faces 10 years maximum each on the endangerment and mischief charges.

Miller initially pleaded not guilty following the Feb. 16, 2023, incident in north Lincoln County. He remains locked up in the county Detention Center with his bail set at $1.5 million.

Following the exit of the jurors from the courtroom, county Sheriff’s Office deputy Clint Heintz placed handcuffs on Miller for his return to the jail in the basement of the courthouse.

Heintz and Johnson were the first two officers in the pursuit of Miller. Heintz began life-saving measures on Johnson after he was struck by a Chevy Silverado driven by Miller.

Heintz and Johnson met and became friends years before after each man joined the Montana National Guard.

Johnson shared hugs with supporters from family and friends, many fellow law enforcement officers and those in the county attorney’s office.

“I feel justice was served,” Johnson said in an interview with The Western News. “I appreciate the work of the jurors and everyone involved.

“From the beginning, once I knew he was in custody, if this means I’m his last victim, in some small way, it might all be worth it.”

Tuesday was spent selecting a jury of 14 county residents, including nine women and five men. Two are alternates, who were dismissed once deliberations began.

Wednesday and Thursday saw testimony from many law enforcement officers, including Johnson, as well as a woman who was a passenger in Miller’s truck during the chase. Her presence in the vehicle is why he was charged with aggravated kidnapping.

Friday morning, state prosecutor Thorin Geist and Daniel Wood of the Office of the State Public Defender  made their closing statements.

“You can know a person by their actions,” Geist said. “Now you know what kind of person the defendant is. One of the questions you must answer is, ‘What was his intention?’ The defendant wanted to get away from law enforcement at all costs with no regard for his passenger, other motorists, law enforcement and most of all, trooper Lewis Johnson.”

Geist continued his argument that helped determine the charge of attempted deliberate homicide.

“He (Miller) knew about that warrant and when he saw deputy Clint Heintz, he turned and ran,” Geist said. “He forced 17 drivers off the road, passing on double yellow lined sections of road, blind curves. If the lives of other motorists didn’t matter, then what could Trooper Johnson’s life have meant?”

For Wood, his closing statement centered on the theme of intention.

“There is no debate over Trooper Johnson’s injuries,” he said. “The officers said they only thought he was trying to get to the West Kootenai where he knew the area better than the pursuing officers. There was no radio talk that he was a violent man, a cop killer.”

Geist objected to Wood speaking about the officers’ states of mind and what they knew about Miller.

Coffman agreed with Geist and told the jury they were to not consider what law enforcement thought or knew of Miller.

Incidentally, Miller has a criminal record dating back more than 20 years, including three felony convictions and one misdemeanor conviction. Two felony convictions are for theft and the other is for possession of methamphetamine.

Information in Lincoln County court documents indicates Miller has stolen from his parents, neighbors and two local fire departments.

Miller has served time in the Montana State Prison as well as various Department of Corrections facilities in the last two decades.

One of the cases involved a 2002 burglary charge that originated when Miller was accused of throwing a log through the window of a residence on West Kootenai Road. He entered the home through the window and stole 12 pistols and four rifles. Miller’s parents also suspected him of stealing several silver coins and a compound bow from their home.

Attorneys were not permitted to present evidence of Miller’s prior criminal history.

Wood continued his argument about Miller’s intent on the day of the incidents.

“After leaving Highway 37 and driving up Camp 32 Road, he drives to a spur road. He didn’t know it didn’t go anywhere until he tried to go up it. His intent is to get away,” Wood said.

The condition of Camp 32 Road was argued frequently by both sides in terms of Miller’s intent that day.

Wood said the state wanted to have it both ways.

“They say the road conditions were terrible and we struggled to navigate it, but Jason was able to navigate it perfectly. When Miller was interviewed by Montana Department of Criminal Investigations Agent Kevin McCarvel, Jason was told he had hit trooper Johnson, he said he wished it had been him and not the trooper. That shows true remorse.”

In a rebuttal by Geist, he said, “The defendant could’ve gone left to get past trooper Johnson. Why doesn’t he? He knows he has to get past trooper Johnson.”

Both attorneys also argued when or if Miller’s head was up or down while he was trying to evade law officers when he was being shot at.

The aggravated kidnapping charge was also a matter of strong debate for both counselors.

Wood agreed with Geist that the woman in the Chevy Silverado pickup truck with Miller couldn’t see into the future.

“She said she was never restrained by Jason. She may not know the legal definition of kidnapping, but she knows what kidnapping is,” Wood said. “The truck was stopped at least three times before Johnson was struck. She was part of this. She told him (Miller) to stop, not because of fear, but because it wasn’t the right way to do this.”

Geist said the woman had no way of knowing how far the pursuit would go. 

“Her choices are to stay in the vehicle or jump on to Highway 37. What type of injuries could she have suffered? Geist queried. “She asked three times to get out of the truck and according to Deputy (Scott) Welchons, she jumped at the first available opportunity.”