If we're simply trying to please one side or another, this will be an absolutely thankless job. So you have to commit yourself to the process, to trying to make the best judgment call you can based on the evidence that's available to you. —Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill
WEST VALLEY CITY — The Utah Attorney General's Office will not appeal a judge's decision to dismiss the case against former West Valley police officer Shaun Cowley at the preliminary hearing phase.
On Friday, the attorney general's office released a brief statement on behalf of its Criminal Appeals Division, which considered whether to file an appeal.
"The attorney general’s office has reviewed the transcripts, evidence, and arguments presented in the Shaun Cowley preliminary hearing and decided not to file an appeal," the statement said. "In reaching that decision, the office considered the factors it weighs in every request to take a state’s appeal, including the likelihood of prevailing on appeal, and the likelihood of prevailing at a trial if one were held."
Cowley was charged in 3rd District Court with manslaughter for shooting and killing Danielle Willard, 21, during an undercover drug operation in 2012.
On Oct. 9, in a rare move, 3rd District Judge L.A. Dever dismissed the criminal case against the former West Valley police detective at the preliminary hearing phase, saying that the state's own expert witnesses testified that Cowley could reasonably believe his life was in danger and deadly force was justified.
During a preliminary hearing, prosecutors only have to meet a low "probable cause" standard to convince a judge that there is enough evidence to show that a crime occurred and that it was likely committed by the defendant. In most cases, that standard is met and a case is bound over for trial where the state has to prove its case to a jury using a higher standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt."
In late October, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill asked the attorney general's office to take a look at the Cowley case and determine whether the judge used the right standards to dismiss the case.
Even more rare than a case being dismissed at the preliminary hearing stage is the attorney general's office appealing a judge's decision not to bind a case over for trial. Since 2006, the attorney general's office has only agreed to do it three times.
Cowley's defense attorney, Lindsay Jarvis, said she was relieved.
"Shaun Cowley and his defense team are relieved that this two-year political prosecution is finally over," she said. "We were confident that the attorney general's office would see that Judge Dever's ruling was appropriate, as the evidence presented in detective Cowley's preliminary hearing indicated."
Both Cowley and his partner that day, former West Valley police detective Kevin Salmon, along with their attorneys and the Fraternal Order of Police, have been critical of Gill's decision to prosecute Cowley. Those strong words of criticism continued Friday.
"Sim Gill and his chief deputy, Blake Nakamura should be ashamed of themselves for wasting hundreds of thousands of taxpayers' dollars on a prosecution where probable cause did not exist," Jarvis said. "The (attorney general's) decision not to proceed with an appeal is further evidence of the district attorney's complete misuse of power and incompetence."
Gill said Friday that cases like these are complicated, which is why a process is set up to deal with them and he still believes in the process.
"As far as we're concerned, this is a conclusion to this matter," he said.
As for continued criticism he has received from the police order and Cowley's attorneys, he noted that since he has been district attorney he has reviewed more than 40 officer-involved shootings and in the majority of cases he has cleared the officers. Gill said the public can't on one hand say he is doing a good job as long as he finds all use of deadly force cases justified, but on the other say he's being political if he doesn't.
"The integrity of the system is not measured by all the clearances we do," he said. "You can't say that you're right in one and wrong in another. If we're simply trying to please one side or another, this will be an absolutely thankless job. So you have to commit yourself to the process, to trying to make the best judgment call you can based on the evidence that's available to you."
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