It is important to recognize the presumption of innocence applies to everyone, and absolutely in this case as well. So we trust the process, and we must go forward with the process. These are not easy decisions, these are difficult decisions and sometimes these are not popular decisions. —Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill
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."
In August, Gill determined that the shooting was not legally justified. And while Gill said there was "criminal culpability" for both Cowley and Salmon, the investigative team determined that only Cowley should face charges. "Based on the totality of the information that was forwarded to them (that) one more than the other started this process. And based on the totality of the information that they had, we did not feel that at this time that we had sufficient basis for filing charges against Mr. Salmon," he said.
Gill said it was the "reckless" nature in which Cowley acted that warrants a criminal charge. The team, he said, determined that manslaughter is a more appropriate charge than the more serious charge of murder, based on the evidence and the conduct of the officer.
The FOP believes Gill has tried to politicize the case and "tried to hide behind the secrecy of a grand jury" because he doesn't want to present evidence in a courtroom, Adams said. Gill tried to take the case before a secret state grand jury in January, but a five-judge panel declined his request.
Although happy that Salmon was not charged, Adams said he is disappointed that "it took two years of being dragged through the mud" to reach what he called a "common sense" decision.
West Valley Police Chief Lee Russo said Thursday that his department "will continue to support that investigation and ultimately that prosecution."
"The decision is not mine. The opinion is not mine. By statute, the decision rests with the district attorney. We're the fact finders," he said. "We fully participated in that investigation. We turned every stone. We looked under every rock, sometimes twice. This is a very complex and involved investigation under extreme circumstances. I'm glad that we have been so painstaking."
The Willard investigation, Russo said, is one of the "most thorough" he's ever seen in his career.
Cowley was fired from the department for allegedly mishandling evidence and being insubordinate. Salmon has remained on paid administrative leave since the shooting. Now that Gill has decided not to file criminal charges against Salmon, Russo said his department can finalize its own administrative investigation into the incident.
That investigation is 99 percent complete and should be finished within the next 30 days, the chief said, adding that so far, his administrative review of the Willard shooting is "consistent" with the conclusions the district attorney reached. But his office is also looking at different factors, he said, such as internal policies.
The investigation has been a long, drawn-out process and now moves into the court system. Gill said his office was still questioning experts as recently as a week and a half ago.
"Nothing about this investigation has been ordinary. From its inception to the initial shooting review that was done, it was a drawn-out process that took some time," he said. "We do not adjudicate the guilt of individuals. That is up to a court of law. It is important to recognize the presumption of innocence applies to everyone, and absolutely in this case as well. So we trust the process, and we must go forward with the process. These are not easy decisions, these are difficult decisions and sometimes these are not popular decisions."
Gill said he spoke with a representative from Willard's legal team prior to making his announcement. Willard's mother has long contended that the shooting was an unnecessary and excessive show of force. She has filed a civil lawsuit in federal court against West Valley City and 14 officers.
Last week, on the Justice for Danielle Willard Facebook page, Kennedy posted a message that appeared to be a message to her deceased daughter.
"I know you are near me helping me through this, but sometimes it just hurts so bad. I want to hold you and give you a big kiss. I want to hear your voice. I watch as your friends graduate from college and how fun their lives are now that they are out in this big bad world we live in," she wrote. "It has been a year and a half since I saw you, I still remember your voice and how happy you were about your very first apartment. You were so happy. How did things go so wrong in such a short period of time?
"I promise you baby girl, I will do whatever I have to in order to make sure we get answers. I know we may not know everything, but at least you are at peace now. I love you my sweet baby girl."
Cowley and Salmon were members of West Valley's now disbanded Neighborhood Narcotics Unit. Cowley is in the process of appealing his firing before the West Valley City Civil Service Commission. A hearing on the matter was continued for a third time in April.
More than 120 state and federal criminal cases investigated by officers in that drug unit were eventually dismissed because prosecutors determined the cases were tainted with credibility problems.
Russo reiterated Thursday that his department is moving on from its problems.
"This is a very good police department, and people need to know that," he said. "(The shooting) is a singular happening. It is not reflective of a full police department, and I think the community needs to recognize that and can trust us and have confidence in us."
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