Shooting death by West Valley police not legally justified, D.A. determines

New investigation launched to determine whether criminal charges should be filed

Published: Thursday, Aug. 8 2013 9:05 a.m. MDT

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill discusses the West Valley City police officer-involved shooting on Nov. 2 that killed Danielle Willard at the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013. Gill announced the shooting was not legally justified.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

WEST VALLEY CITY — More than nine months after a woman was gunned down in a parking lot by two West Valley City police officers, the district attorney has determined the shooting was not legally justified.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill on Thursday announced his conclusions in the fatal officer-involved shooting of Danielle Willard, 21. After reviewing 3,800 pages of reports and interviews, Gill concluded the evidence and witness statements do not match the accounts of detectives Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon of how the incident unfolded on Nov. 2, 2012.

Cowley told investigators he fired after Willard struck him with her vehicle when she backed it up and he believed she had run over his partner, Salmon. But Gill said that was not true.

Cowley was not behind Willard's vehicle when she began to back out, but rather at the side of her car, Gill said. The detective was not hit by her car or knocked down, the report concluded. Also, even though Salmon was lightly brushed by Willard's vehicle, Cowley did not see him get hit, Gill said.

Because neither of the officers' lives were in imminent danger, Gill said the shooting was not justified.

"Ms. Willard's reversing vehicle was not traveling at detective Cowley and did not present any threat to either detective," Gill's report states. "Accordingly, detective Cowley and detective Salmon's contention that they believed Ms. Willard was going to reverse over detective Cowley was not reasonable."

But Lindsay Jarvis, Cowley's attorney, strongly disagrees with the report. She said her client was truthful with the DA's office and is upset with Gill's conclusions.

"I have the same 3,811 pages on my computer here. I don't understand this. My investigator doesn't understand this. The experts are on our side. The experts believe exactly what we say happened is what happened," Jarvis said.

A particular point of contention is whether Cowley was in imminent danger when he fired the shot that killed Willard and whether he was actually hit by her vehicle. Jarvis said her client did not fall down.

"He sees the vehicle coming at him, he instinctively grabs his gun, fires two rounds, and at that point is when he was struck by the vehicle," she said. "My client was not brushed by the vehicle. My client was hit by the vehicle. The question is whether he was hit by the tire or hit by the bumper. But he was clearly suffering from injuries. … To say he was just brushed is absolutely ridiculous."

Whether Cowley and Salmon were intentionally being deceitful in their stories was something Gill's office did not investigate.

"They presented us with one set of facts. We tested them with the evidence we had, and it did not support what they did," he said. "I’m not going to speculate to what their motivation was."

However, Gill's office will now begin a second investigation to determine whether the officers' actions rose to the level to justify filing criminal charges against them. That investigation may look into why their stories did not match the physical evidence.

While a DA's decision on whether an officer-involved shooting is justified cannot be appealed, Jarvis said she will fight vigorously if any criminal charges are filed against Cowley. She contended Thursday that of the 42 witnesses interviewed for the report, 41 of them will side with her client and Salmon.

Family response

Willard's mother, Melissa Kennedy, released a brief statement Thursday afternoon through the family's attorney, Mark Geragos.

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