WATCH: Pennsylvania State Trooper Gets Jail For Shooting Pregnant Wife

Joseph Paul Miller

NORRISTOWN >> While calling it “a tragedy of the highest order,” a judge said some jail time is warranted for a former state police trooper who killed his pregnant wife and unborn child as he was cleaning his gun and it discharged in their East Norriton home.

Joseph Paul Miller, 37, formerly of the 3000 block of Stoney Creek Road in East Norriton, was sentenced in Montgomery County Court on Tuesday to three to 23 months in the county jail in connection with the March 7, 2014, deaths of his 34-year-old wife, Joanna, and their unborn baby girl.

“This is a tragedy of the highest order…that has deeply affected so many,” Judge Steven T. O’Neill said.

O’Neill ordered Miller to report to the jail on March 26 to begin serving the sentence. Miller is eligible for the jail’s work release program during his incarceration. Miller, a father of two, likely will be segregated at the county jail for his protection in light of his previous work as a police officer.

“You will carry a heavy heart for the rest of your life. When you look into the eyes of your children you’ll punish yourself every time,” O’Neill addressed Miller.

Miller, who previously resigned from his position with the state police at Skippack, pleaded guilty to two counts of involuntary manslaughter, one count each for the killing of his pregnant wife and another for the child who died after doctors performed an emergency cesarean section.

Under state law, a person commits involuntary manslaughter when as a direct result of doing a lawful or unlawful act in a reckless or grossly negligent manner they cause the death of another person.

Defense lawyer Timothy Woodward and some of Joanna’s relatives sought a probationary sentence for Miller, arguing Miller’s two school-age children, already suffering the loss of their mother, should not also have to suffer the loss of their father through incarceration. The children were in court and wept at times during the emotional hearing.

O’Neill said he considered the pleas for a mitigated sentence but said a minimal amount of jail time is necessary “to send a message that jail is part of justice” and to act as a deterrent to the community at-large. The jail term also was within recommended state sentencing guidelines for the crime.

“Justice is not easy in a case like this,” admitted O’Neill, acknowledging his concept of justice might not be in line with family members’ concepts of justice. “But all I can say is I’ve done my best.”

The judge also ordered Miller to complete three years’ probation following parole, meaning he will be under court supervision for about five years. Miller also must complete 200 hours of community service and the judge recommended Miller speak to law enforcement agencies during training sessions about gun safety.

“You should tell that story over and over again. Hopefully, it will impact somebody else’s life,” O’Neill said to Miller.

Miller, who most recently resided along the first block of Oxford Lane in Horsham, was a seven-year veteran of the state police force and was off-duty at the time of the shooting.

Miller sobbed as he apologized to Joanna’s relatives and his children, calling the incident a “horrifying tragedy.”

“I’m truly very sorry for taking away such a sweet person. I will always love my wife Joanna and all the joy she brought to our lives,” Miller wept before learning his fate.

Woodward called the incident an “unspeakable tragedy,” saying Miller was a “hardworking, honest and fair” man who deeply loved his wife. Woodward asked the judge not to compound the tragedy by taking Miller away from his children.

“He’s as remorseful as a person can possibly be. He was careless, reckless and negligent in disassembling a gun. He accepts total responsibility,” Woodward argued.

But Deputy District Attorney Steven Latzer argued for a jail term against Miller.

“The defendant did something that the laws of this commonwealth prohibit. The level of recklessness, the level of negligence, it just can’t be ignored,” Latzer argued. “If the price you pay is simply grief and remorse, then what do we have criminal laws for?”

Joanna’s mother and sister described her as a loving wife and mother who was excited about her pregnancy and they said they feel “the crushing loss” every day.

The investigation began about 2:24 p.m. when Miller called 911 and stated he had just shot his pregnant wife in the head while cleaning his gun at their East Norriton home. The Glock 39 .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun was Miller’s personal weapon for which he had been qualified to use by the state police, court papers alleged.

“I was about to clean my gun and I didn’t realize there was a round…I shot my wife. There was one round in there. I didn’t realize there was a round in there,” Miller allegedly stated to 911 operators, according to court documents. “(Expletive) I can’t believe I (expletive) did this.”

The Millers had been married since March 2009 and resided at the home with their two children, then ages 4 and 2, and Joanna’s two older sons, ages 11 and 8, according to court papers.

Joanna Miller, who suffered a gunshot wound to her left temple, was transported to a local hospital and before being transported to a trauma center went into cardiac arrest, authorities alleged. Doctors performed emergency surgery in an attempt to save the unborn child.

Following the surgery Joanna Miller was pronounced dead at 3 p.m. The 24-week-old baby girl suffered life-threatening distress and was provided critical emergency care but was pronounced dead at 4:24 p.m., authorities said.

An autopsy concluded the cause of death for Joanna Miller was a “perforating close range gunshot wound of the head.” The coroner noted the woman’s left temple area was “surrounded by dense gunpowder stipple indicating a close range gunshot wound,” according to the criminal complaint.

The coroner determined the baby’s cause of death was “precipitous delivery due to maternal gunshot wound.” The manner of death for both mother and child was ruled homicide, court papers indicate.

Detectives alleged Miller brought the handgun into the family room of the East Norriton home where his wife was seated on the floor, vacuum sealing children’s clothing.

Miller allegedly told detectives he began the disassembly process in the family room, that he was looking at the gun when he squeezed the trigger but did not see Joanna and that he did not think he was pointing the gun anywhere near her, according to the arrest affidavit. Miller told detectives that after he pulled the trigger, the weapon discharged once.

When investigators initially asked about his distance from his wife when he pulled the trigger Miller stated he was probably eight to 10 feet away. Later, Miller changed his answer and told investigators that the distance between them was roughly two-feet instead, according to the arrest affidavit.

Miller allegedly told detectives he did not intentionally shoot his wife, that “it was an accident.” Miller added to detectives, “I love her to death.”

In June 2014, then District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman, who is now a county judge, found that her evaluation of the investigation at that point revealed that Miller was “negligent in his handling of the firearm” but not criminally liable, according to the arrest affidavit. Ferman advised, however, that the district attorney reserved the right to review the matter should investigators develop any new evidence or any evidence to the contrary.

“After evidence to the contrary was examined, District Attorney Ferman authorized the investigation to continue,” then county Detective Lt. Stephen Forzato and state police Cpl. Robert J. Levan wrote in a criminal complaint.

Upon consideration of distance determination test patterns and additional inquiry, investigators determined that the muzzle of Miller’s gun was between three- and six-inches away from Joanna’s head when he shot her to death, according to the criminal complaint.

Detectives said evidence demonstrated that Miller “fully understood Glock firearm safety procedures and the standards of care necessary to protect others from a substantial and unjustifiable risk of death.”

Investigators concluded Miller should have been aware that his wife was seated right next to him and that the muzzle was pointed directly at her head when he pulled the trigger and shot her to death.

“Consequently, Miller lied to police when he stated that he did not know where Joanna was at the time of the shooting. Miller also lied when he told police he was eight to ten feet away from Joanna, and then lied again when he changed his answer and stated he was roughly two feet away,” Forzato and Levan alleged.