How is this body going to un-ring that bell? —District Attorney Sim Gill
SALT LAKE CITY — Attorneys for the mother of Danielle Willard, who was shot and killed by West Valley City undercover narcotics officers, want access to “factual information” to further their investigation into a possible civil lawsuit.
On Tuesday, the attorneys addressed the Salt Lake County Council to appeal a decision by the district attorney’s office not to release records related to the officer-involved shooting resulting in Willard’s death on Nov. 2, 2012.
Jon Williams, local counsel for Willard's mother, Melissa Kennedy, told the council that the family wants access to “hard facts” related to the case, such as crime scene photographs and the results of toxicology tests administered to the officers involved in the shooting, Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon. The family has served notice it intends to file a civil lawsuit, Williams said.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill has argued that there are multiple ongoing investigations stemming from the fatal shooting.
“This is a complicated, nuanced issue before us,” Gill said.
In addition to West Valley City’s internal investigation of the officer-involved shooting, the district attorney's office, FBI and Salt Lake City Police Department are conducting related probes, including the district attorney's office determining whether the police shooting was justified.
Williams said the County Council, acting in a quasi-judicial capacity, may have the authority to release some of the documents under an order prohibiting their further dissemination.
Chairman Steve DeBry questioned whether the council has the authority to issue such an order.
“Is that really the purview of the Salt Lake County Council to impose that? Do we have legal standing to impose one and put it into play?” DeBry asked.
Williams asked the council for a week to prepare briefs on the issue and resume the hearing next week. The council voted 6-3 to continue the hearing until next week.
Gill urged the council to tread carefully since release of information could compromise the ongoing investigations of the shooting and West Valley City’s Neighborhood Narcotics Unit.
“How is this body going to un-ring that bell?” he said.
Councilman Sam Granato asked the council to deny the appeal Tuesday, but his motion died for the lack of a second.
Councilman Jim Bradley noted that the County Council rarely grants appeals of public records requests that have been denied by other agencies.
“The aggrieved party is Melissa Kennedy. Do we care about her?” Bradley said.
While a number of council members said they are committed to government transparency, “there seems to be an issue of timing here,” Councilman Richard Snelgrove said.
In a letter to the County Council, deputy district attorney D. Adam Miller wrote that the district attorney’s office “is bound to uphold the ‘protected’ status of West Valley Police Department’s records. The only entity that may waive the protection is West Valley P.D. itself.”
But Kennedy’s Los Angeles attorney, Shelly Kaufman of the law firm Geragos & Geragos, wrote in a letter to the County Council that the requested records are not protected by privilege or the attorney work doctrine.
“Simply put, our client is entitled to records relating to the terrible shooting of her young daughter,” the letter said.
Willard, 21, was shot and killed by Cowley and Salmon in an apartment complex parking lot at 2293 W. Lexington Park Drive.
According to a news release issued by the department at the time, the detectives believed they saw Willard buying drugs. When they approached her car, she shifted the vehicle into reverse, striking Cowley. Both detectives shot at her.
Both officers, who were part of narcotics unit, remain on paid administrative leave. Seven other officers with the now-disbanded unit are on leave pending the outcome of state and federal investigations related to its activities.
West Valley police shut down the unit in December after evidence was found in Cowley’s car trunk. The evidence was not connected to the Willard case.
Meanwhile, state and federal prosecutors have dismissed 124 drug cases handled by the unit due to a lack of evidence amid allegations of police corruption and an unlikelihood of achieving convictions in court.