Some convicted by West Valley drug unit want their cases reviewed
Embattled department places 7 more officers on administrative leave
The investigation into the drug unit began after the fatal officer-involved shooting of 21-year-old Danielle Willard when officers found evidence from a prior crime scene in the trunk of Cowley's car. He and Salmon shot Willard during an undercover drug operation. Former Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen said that was the launching board to disband the entire unit and conduct an internal investigation.
In addition to the 88 state cases, eight federal cases tied to the department have also been dismissed.
Defense attorney Susanne Gustin, who has a private practice, said she, too, has been contacted by past clients and is in the process of taking a serious look at at least two cases.
Both Gustin and Hart agree the process of going back and reviewing old cases will be difficult. And if there is a problem with a particular case, Gustin said it may not be evident simply from a police report. It will take some leg work by attorneys to determine if there are potential issues.
"It's not an easy process. It will be very time-consuming," she said.
She cautioned that just because someone was arrested by West Valley police and convicted, that doesn't automatically mean a case is eligible to be overturned.
"They're not going to dismiss every single (West Valley) case. If a defense attorney approaches a prosecutor and says, 'I have real concerns with this case and this is why. It fits the profile of the other problem cases and it involves this officer or this kind of MO,' then I think they'll look at it," she said. "But no, I don't think they're going to do a wholesale dismissal of every single West Valley narcotics case."
For those wrongly convicted, Gustin said the collateral damage includes lost jobs and seized property that was eventually forfeited.
Likewise, Hart said, not every person ever arrested by West Valley police should be contacting their lawyer. But if a person has been arrested by a West Valley officer on a drug charge and recently convicted, "Then I would probably ask questions and contact my attorney."
But Hart said he has no idea how far the problematic cases go back or how many years the district attorney's is investigating.
Another problem for the Salt Lake Legal Defender's Office is that by law, its attorneys do not have to accept a client's case once it is past the trial phase and initial appeal.
"If they're private practice attorneys, they would probably want to be paid for (reopening a case in court). There will be plenty of attorneys who will do it out of the goodness of their hearts pro bono," Hart said. "If they were given a public defender, however, I don't think the Salt Lake Legal Defenders Association has the resources to do that."
Despite the extra work it may create, Hart had praise Wednesday for what Gill is doing.
"This is an extremely unusual situation and I applaud the district attorney for serving justice. He's doing what is right and that's the role of a prosecutor — to do what's right and not to win cases," he said.
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