BOISE, Idaho (KBOI) The propane tank exploded as Jennifer Miller, 31, struggled to unbuckle her 4-year-old daughter’s seat belt and pull her from the burning car the night of April 10 in a Boise parking lot.
The force of that explosion threw Miller back as it engulfed the car. She’d made a narrow escape with her own life and that of her 2-year-old son, but she didn’t get to her daughter in time.
Alliee Rose died in the blaze.
Miller said in court Tuesday she’s regretted that night every day since — her nightmares were vivid enough for staff members at the Ada County Jail to prescribe her medication — but she still wept and shook as 4th District Court Judge Samuel Hoagland described that scene at her sentencing hearing Tuesday.
At the time, Miller was homeless and sleeping in her car in the 8300 block of West Overland Road with the children, using a portable stove to keep warm. Investigators believe the stove caught fire as they slept. They also later found evidence of methamphetamine in her son’s system — perhaps, Hoagland mused, from secondhand smoke as Miller smoked it.
She initially faced five felonies, but pleaded guilty to two counts of injury to a child in September. Hoagland sentenced Miller to a possible 20 years in prison, although only five years of that time is set — meaning she will be eligible for parole after that.
That sentence was far harsher than what Heidi Koonce, Miller’s defense attorney, believed was necessary. Koonce pointed out the situation wasn’t much different from dozens of other situations in which children have died in accidents, and in which parents don’t face criminal charges. Much of the prosecutors’ case, she said, hinged on the fact that doctors later found traces of methamphetamine in Miller’s system. Many non-lawyers she spoke with about the case were shocked Miller faced charges at all.
“Their almost immediate response was, ‘Why was she even charged with a crime? That’s so sad,’” Koonce said.
But Koonce didn’t try to minimize Miller’s use of methamphetamine, heroin and alcohol, all of which had been rampant for years. She had never been convicted of a felony before, but that’s because she successfully completed a stint in Ada County Drug Court in May 2016, when she was pregnant with her son. Within months of his birth, though, Hoagland later pointed out, she had relapsed and was doing drugs again.
She also had a relationship with Nicolas Rose, 26, a fellow drug user. The two often bought and did drugs together and were later evicted from the home they shared together. It was Rose who stole the portable stove to heat the car, and it was Rose who told Miller that night he had gone looking for a hotel room for the family to stay in. He lied to her though, Koonce said — Rose simply wanted a night to himself and left Miller with the children in the parking lot. He later took a plea deal and is serving a rider term.
So Miller stayed with the children and, as Katelyn Farley, the case’s prosecutor pointed out Tuesday, Miller was likely coming down from a high that night, which may have been why she was slow to react to her daughter’s cries. To Farley, the case wasn’t an accident but the end result of Miller’s conscious decisions to get high for years.
Koonce asked Hoagland to sentence Miller to City Light Home for Women’s live-in drug recovery program, which can last up to two years and offers women extensive, individualized recovery. Society, she said, would be better protected if Miller received treatment.
“At the end of the day, this is a young woman, and she has a lot of life ahead of her,” Koonce said. “And we can incarcerate her, but eventually she will parole, even if she does her sentence.”
Hoagland agreed Miller hadn’t meant to harm her children. But he also said she was the direct cause of their death and injury. For that reason, he said, “justice requires imprisonment,” and he stood by the sentence, calling it, “just, fair and reasonable.”