Former Pa. state trooper charged in shooting deaths of pregnant wife, baby

Joseph Miller-17032017-0001
Joseph Miller, former Pennsylvania state trooper.

A former Pennsylvania state trooper who had previously been cleared in the shooting deaths three years ago of his pregnant wife and their baby — who was born when the wife was in surgery — will now face involuntary manslaughter charges in their deaths, the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office announced Friday.

Joseph Miller, 36, was arrested and charged with two misdemeanor counts of involuntary manslaughter in the 2014 shooting deaths of his pregnant wife, Joanna, 34, and their child, who was delivered after the shooting, the DA's Office said.

It was 2:24 p.m. March 7, 2014, when Miller, then a Pennsylvania state trooper, called 911 to report that he had shot his wife in the family room of their home on Stoney Creek Road in East Norriton. Police arrived and found Joanna Miller unresponsive with an apparent gunshot wound to her head. She was taken in critical condition to Mercy Suburban Hospital, where she suffered cardiac arrest, authorities said.

An emergency Cesarean section was performed in an attempt to save the unborn baby, authorities said. The baby girl, who had been in the womb for 24 weeks, was delivered, but at the end of the surgery, Joanna Miller was pronounced dead. The baby, initially in critical condition, was taken to Einstein Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead that day.

The Montgomery County chief deputy coroner had determined that Joanna Miller died of a "close-range gunshot wound of the head" and the baby died of "precipitous delivery due to maternal gunshot wound." 

Joseph Miller had told investigators that he brought his Glock 39 into the family room and was preparing to clean it when it discharged, authorities said. Joanna Miller was sitting on the family room floor at the time.

After an initial three-month investigation by Montgomery County detectives, Pennsylvania State Police and East Norriton police, the prosecutor's office, led by then-District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman, in June 2014 concluded that Joseph Miller was negligent in his handling of the gun, but not criminally liable.

But authorities now say that Miller lied when he told authorities at the time that he was not aware that his wife was right next to him.

According to the affidavit of probable cause filed Thursday against Miller, Ferman had authorized the investigation against Miller to continue after she was presented with more information on the case.

In its announcement Friday, the DA's office, now led by District Attorney Kevin R. Steele, who was Ferman's first assistant in 2014, said that forensic and ballistic tests conducted over the last two years showed that Joanna Miller was indeed shot at close range and that her husband disregarded essential safety measures. 

Investigators determined that the muzzle of Miller's firearm was between 3 and 6 inches away from his wife's head when he shot her, the affidavit says.

"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," the affidavit says.

Miller "lied to police when he stated he did not know where Joanna was at the time of the shooting" and "also lied" when he told police he was 8 to 10 feet away from her, and then later "lied again when he changed his answer" and said he was roughly 2 feet away from her, the affidavit says.

"As a Pennsylvania State Trooper, Miller was fully aware of the procedures and standards of care necessary to ensure the safety of others while cleaning his Glock firearm," the affidavit says, adding that he "directly caused the unlawful deaths of his wife and child by repeatedly disregarding these essential safety measures" and then lying to police.

"Under these circumstances, Miller's conduct was unjustifiable, reckless and grossly negligent," the affidavit says.

In earlier statements to authorities, Miller said he normally cleaned his guns in the backyard shed but that he first disassembles them in the house. He was in the process of taking his Glock 39 apart when he released the slide and squeezed the trigger, he said. He said he did not realize there was a round in the magazine and did not think he was pointing the gun anywhere near his wife.

"I, uh, was cleaning," he told the 911 dispatcher. "I was about to clean my gun and I didn't realize there was a round ... I shot my wife."

Children's voices were heard in the background of the 911 call, according to the transcript. Miller told his wife, "Joanna, I love you," and told the dispatcher "my wife is pregnant, also."

"F—! I can't believe I f—ing did this," he said in the call.

Miller was arraigned Friday before Magisterial District Judge Ester Casillo and waived his preliminary hearing. Bail was set at an unsecured amount of $100,000, with conditions that he surrender his passport and all firearms, the DA's Office said.

Miller, who was released on unsecured bail, will next face a formal arraignment May 10.

Timothy Woodward, Miller's defense attorney, said Friday: "This is a tragedy of epic proportions. Joe had an excellent reputation among his peers in the state police and regrettably, accidentally, shot his wife."

He said Miller resigned Wednesday from the state police.

A state police spokesman said Miller, who joined the force in January 2007, was assigned to the Skippack Barracks in Montgomery County at the time of the shooting, but was placed on restrictive duty after the shooting and transferred to the procurement and supply unit in Philadelphia.

Asked why Miller waived his preliminary hearing, Woodward, who had served for 27 years in the Montgomery County DA's Office, leaving in 2002, said there was "nothing new we were going to learn at the preliminary hearing." He declined comment when asked if Miller would fight the charges at a trial.

Miller no longer lives in the East Norriton home. He now lives in Horsham with their two children. (His wife also had two other children from a previous relationship.)

On Friday afternoon, there were three cars parked in the driveway of Miller's Horsham home, but no one answered the door. 

Staff writer Laura McCrystal contributed to this article.