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S.L. County Council says no to release of records in shooting death of Danielle Willard

Published: Tuesday, May 21 2013 6:46 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY -- The Salt Lake County Council refused to release records related to the fatal officer-involved shooting of Danielle Willard in West Valley City on Nov. 2, 2012.

Attorneys for Willard's mother had appealed to the County Council an earlier decision by the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office not to release the records related to the shooting. The Council voted 7-1 Tuesday to uphold the district attorney's decision, with several council members noting the release of documents related to the case could compromise ongoing investigations.

"When your attorneys say we need to protect this stuff, that's something you need to listen to and err on that side," said council member Max Burdick.

But council member Jim Bradley, who cast the lone vote to grant the appeal, said certain records could be released "without jeopardizing the case."

"My instinct tells me freedom of information is important. You've made a fairly convincing case," Bradley said.

Willard's mother, Melissa Kennedy, had sought the records under the state Government Records Access and Management Act. Last week, her attorneys said they wanted access to factual documents such as crime scene photos and toxicology reports for the officers involved in the shooting.

Jon Wiliams, local counsel for Kennedy, said attorneys for the family "want to make sure we do a proper, thorough investigation before we file" a civil action.

Beyond legal considerations, there is a compelling human element to the request, Williams said.

"There is an issue of a mother who has waited 6 ½ months for answers. She wants some sort of answer by virtue of the fact this was a very slight young woman who was unarmed," he said.

While many council members said they had been persuaded that release of documents related to the case could hamper ongoing investigations, Williams argued that the GRAMA appeals process was intended to allow the County Council to "weigh competing interests."

Williams said Kennedy's attorney had not sought the records directly from the West Valley City Police Department. That remains an option but "that is the same agency that withheld (documents and records) for more than five months before the investigation was turned over to the district attorney," he said.

The County Council's decision could be appealed to either the district court or the State Records Committee. Williams referred questions about a possible appeal to Kennedy's Los Angeles attorneys.

Shelly Kaufman of the Los Angeles law firm Geragos & Geragos did not return a telephone message Tuesday afternoon seeking comment.

Council member Mike Jensen said he, too, empathized with Willard's family and wants to shed as much light as possible on the shooting.

"I'm going to err on the side of caution when it comes to the overall investigation. I know you're going to have your day in court," Jensen said.

"If we've got to put you off a couple of weeks to a couple of months, I'm willing to have that trade-off to get the best outcome we can get."

Willard, 21, was shot and killed by West Valley City Police officers Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon in an apartment complex parking lot at 2293 W. Lexington Park Drive.

A press release issued by the police department at the time states that the detectives said they believed they saw Willard buying drugs. When they approached her car, she shifted it into reverse, striking Cowley. Both detectives shot at her.

Both officers, who were part of the Neighborhood Narcotics Unit, remain on paid administrative leave. Seven other officers with the now-disbanded unit are also on leave pending the outcome of state and federal investigations related to its activities.

A month after the shooting, West Valley Police shut down the unit after evidence was found in the trunk of Cowley’s car. The evidence was not connected to the Willard case, West Valley Police said.

The police department’s internal investigation expanded to include separate probes by the Salt Lake City Police Department, the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office and the FBI.

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 that the defendants would be convicted in court.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com

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