Ex-West Valley police detective charged with manslaughter

'Reckless' officer was not in danger when he shot woman in head, D.A. says

Published: Thursday, June 19 2014 10:55 a.m. MDT

West Valley City Police Chief Lee Russo speaks to reporters about today's decision by Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill regarding Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon in West Valley City on Thursday, June 19, 2014. Gill filed a charge of manslaughter, a second-degree felony, against former West Valley police detective Cowley Thursday. If convicted, he could serve up to 15 years in prison.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The former West Valley police detective at the center of the storm surrounding the 2012 shooting death of Danielle Willard now faces a criminal charge.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill filed a charge of manslaughter, a second-degree felony, against Shaun Cowley Thursday. If convicted, the fired police officer could serve up to 15 years in prison.

Cowley, with his attorney, surrendered to the Salt Lake County Jail and was booked Thursday afternoon. He arranged his $25,000 bail before arriving, however, and was immediately released after being admitted.

Willard, 21, was shot and killed on Nov. 2, 2012, while sitting in her car during a botched undercover drug operation by West Valley police. A total of six shots were fired, two by Cowley and four by fellow detective Kevin Salmon.

Gill said Cowley fired the first — and fatal — shot, striking Willard in the head. No charges will be filed against Salmon.

Mark Geragos, a Los Angeles-based attorney representing Willard's mother, said Thursday was "a very emotional day" for Melissa Kennedy.

"This is obviously an important milestone in our quest for justice of Danielle. We're hopeful that now the truth will come out as to this horrible tragedy," he said.

But the Utah Fraternal Order of Police said it was confused and shocked at the choice to charge Cowley, calling it a "convoluted decision." Order spokesman Ian Adams said the union looks forward to clearing Cowley's name in court.

"Our focus now is on ensuring Cowley's constitutional rights are upheld," he said.

Cowley's attorney echoed those sentiments, calling the charge "incredibly disappointing" and "politically motivated." She also called Gill's press conference an "opening argument" with "manipulated evidence."

"We are confident detective Cowley will prevail at trial," Lindsay Jarvis wrote in a prepared statement. "Based on the evidence, including the pieces Mr. Gill failed to present during today's opening argument, the Salt Lake (County) District Attorney's Office will not prevail."

The decision to charge Cowley was made after an investigative team — consisting of two homicide detectives from the Salt Lake Police Department, two homicide detectives from the West Valley Police Department, a detective from the Unified Police Department, and three prosecutors from the district attorney's office — studied the case.

"After the review of all their materials, and based upon the evidence that was available to them, it was the unanimous decision of the investigative team … that criminal charges are warranted in the shooting death of Danielle Willard," Gill said.

Cowley told investigators he fired after Willard struck him with her vehicle when she backed it up and he believed she had hit Salmon. But the investigative team determined that Cowley's life was not in danger when he fired at Willard from the side of her vehicle.

One police expert used as a consultant in the case, who has trained hundreds of officers on the use of deadly force, concluded that Cowley's actions "contradicted police use of force standards," according to charging documents, "and that he was not in a justifiable position where the threat of death of serious bodily injury was imminent to himself or others."

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