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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

"On behalf of Danielle's family, we appreciate District Attorney Sim Gill's investigative findings that Danielle's killing was not justified. The findings confirm what we have already known, that Danielle was murdered."

In June, Kennedy filed a wrongful death lawsuit against West Valley City and 14 police officers in federal court.

The saga began in November when Cowley and Salmon were conducting a drug investigation. The officers witnessed what they believed to be a drug deal between David Gines and Willard, who was driving a Subaru Forester.

Willard was in the parking lot of the Lexington Park Apartments, 2293 W. Lexington Park Drive (3710 South). The two detectives said they believed they saw Willard about to put drugs in her mouth. After the shooting, Gill said detectives discovered drugs in the passenger door, but Willard did not have any in her possession.

As they approached her vehicle, one officer went to the driver's window and the other to the passenger side window. Willard looked up at Cowley with a "blank look on her face," according to Cowley's account to the district attorney.

"It didn't look like she was scared. It didn't look like she was angry, didn't look like she was happy. It was just blank," Cowley said.

Salmon told investigators that Willard kept looking back and forth between the two officers and her gear shift. He said Cowley was yelling at her to "stop" and "spit out the drugs," according to the DA's report.

"It appeared to me that she was, uh, contemplating placing the vehicle into, uh, motion and fleeing," Salmon said.

"My fear was she that she was going to strike (Cowley) and run him over," he said during a second interview.

As Cowley began to walk back to his car to get a tool to break Willard's windows because she wouldn't come out of her vehicle, he claimed she threw her car in reverse — wheels screeching — and "came flying back and hit me," the report states.

But based on forensic evidence, Gill and his investigators concluded otherwise.

"There were no acceleration marks from the place she was parked that would be consistent with her tires making screeching sounds described by detective Cowley," he said.

Willard's front bumper did "brush" Salmon's knee as it reversed, but Gill said Cowley, when pressed, said he didn't see Salmon get hit or fall as he had previously claimed.

Six shots were fired. The first two fired by Cowley struck Willard in the head. Cowley claimed he was falling when he fired the second shot. Gill concluded that neither shot happened the way Cowley originally described it because of the trajectory of the bullets.

Conflicting reports

Jarvis said Gill's report is flawed because it's one-dimensional.

"What is extremely important in this particular case is the fact that the vehicle was moving. And it was moving at great speed for that particular distance and was moving toward the officer. And so those are things that have to be taken into consideration," she said.

Jarvis contends that Willard "slams the gas" and Cowley was trapped between her vehicle and his car with nowhere to go. Willard's car ended up going in a circle in reverse. But at the time she accelerated — Jarvis estimated between 10 mph and 20 mph — her client had just a second to react and believed at that moment he was going to be hit. At that point, Jarvis said Cowley's training kicked in and he reacted appropriately.

"What's important when you're looking at a use of force determination is to determine what the threat was at the time when he made the decision to fire," she said.

"Sure the shot was fired from the side of the vehicle. But at the time he made the decision to shoot, it was in front of him coming at him," Jarvis said.

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