SALT LAKE CITY — A former federal judge says criminal charges should never have been filed against a West Valley police detective who shot and killed a woman during an undercover drug investigation.
Paul Cassell, now a University of Utah law professor, said he's so convinced that he agreed to join the team defending former detective Shaun Cowley.
Cassell said he "became convinced" Cowley was legally justified when he shot and killed Danielle Willard on Nov. 2, 2012, after recently reviewing the evidence in the case provided to him by Cowley's attorney, Lindsay Jarvis.
"I reach this conclusion as someone who has taught criminal law (including manslaughter issues) and criminal procedure (including deadly force issues) and related classes at the College of Law for more than 20 years," Cassell wrote in a letter to Brent Rawson, general counsel for the Fraternal Order of Police. "I believe that the materials provided to me demonstrate a case of justifiable homicide on the part of officer Cowley — and obviously, at the very least, a case in which criminal charges should never have been filed."
Cowley was charged last month with manslaughter, a second-degree felony, in the shooting death of Willard, 21, during a botched drug operation. He is also named in a civil lawsuit filed by Melissa Kennedy, Willard's mother.
Cowley is scheduled to appear in 3rd District Court at 2 p.m. Monday. A hearing is also scheduled next month before the West Valley Civil Service Commission in an attempt to have his firing overturned.
Cassell, who served as a federal judge from 2002 to 2007, said he didn't have any preconceived notions before examining the evidence and told Jarvis he wouldn't accept the case until he had reviewed it. After he did, he said he "became very interested in trying to prevent what I thought would be a conviction that shouldn't occur.
"I think when all the facts are heard, the ultimate result will be a not guilty verdict, if the case even gets all the way to trial," Cassell told the Deseret News.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, who filed the charges, said Cassell — whom he has worked with in the past — informed him last week that he would be taking the case.
"I have always respected Paul and will continue to do so. We have been on the same side of other projects, and in fact, we are working on one together now. On this one we happen to be on different sides. Nothing personal. Both of us just doing our job," he said.
Cassell said he generally does not take cases as a defense attorney since his main expertise is crime victims' rights litigation. But he believes the Cowley case is consistent with his victims' rights work.
"Effective law enforcement is critical to preventing victimization in our society. And part of effective law enforcement work is the ability to be able to defend one's self against deadly threats," Cassell said. "I've always been concerned about having an effective law enforcement system. And I think it's important that police officers be able to effectively respond to threats against them."
Jarvis said the defense team is excited to have Cassell join them, calling him a "brilliant guy" with "tons of experience" and a "perfect fit" for the case.
"He felt strongly that Shaun was, in fact, the victim and this would cause a huge problem for law enforcement. He asked to jump on board, and of course we had no problem with that," she said.
Jarvis said Cassell will be doing a lot of the legal research for the defense team and presenting several briefs in court asking for dismissal.