When Danielle Willard was shot to death by two West Valley City police officers in 2012, the strands of scandal began to stretch across the Salt Lake Valley.
The officer who shot first, Det. Shaun Cowley, was fired after investigators looking into Willard’s death found evidence from other cases concealed in the trunk of his car. West Valley City’s neighborhood narcotics unit, of which Cowley was a part, was disbanded and much of its work—124 criminal cases—were fully dismissed.
In August 2013, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill pegged the Willard shooting unjustified. And on June 19—19 months after Willard was shot in the head during a drug investigation at an apartment complex in West Valley—Gill charged Cowley with manslaughter, a felony that could send the former police officer to prison for up to 15 years.
But the charge hardly ended the chatter surrounding Willard’s death, and has only intensified the glare Gill faces as he eyes a second term as the county’s top prosecutor. Gill’s critics, who have grown to include the law enforcement unions that once backed his political efforts, accuse the prosecutor of charging Cowley for political gain. And one of Cowley’s attorneys says he was “taken aback” by Gill’s announcement.
Manslaughter charges are rarely filed against police officers. In his four-year term, Gill says he’s never filed a charge like this against an officer—a statistic he says is a testament to the quality of the area’s police officers. But in this case, he says, leveling a manslaughter charge was appropriate.
“We have to go to the charge that is supported by the evidence, and the allegation is that Mr. Cowley acted in a reckless manner that led to the death of Danielle Willard,” Gill says.
Gill says his office’s investigation concluded a week and a half before he announced that Cowley would be charged, saying the case and the investigation were “complex.” He declined to state what piece of evidence at last led to the filing of charges.
As the investigation dragged on, Cowley’s attorney, Keith Stoney, says he and other members of the legal team believed Gill would reverse his earlier decision and announce that the shooting was justified.
“They have information to indicate that,” Stoney says.
Stoney says he doesn’t know what new evidence surfaced that led Gill to charge his client: “It does not make sense to us that you could wait as long as you waited to file charges” based on information that arrived so recently.
Gill, a Democrat who is nearing the end of his first term as district attorney, is being challenged for his job by one of his top prosecutors, Steve Nelson, who is running as a Republican.
As Cowley’s case winds through the justice system, some say it is not likely that the case will be resolved by the time voters cast ballots in November. This fact, says Ian Adams, a spokesman for the Utah State
Fraternal Order of Police, which has endorsed Nelson, was calculated by Gill.
“The timing is purely political and is designed to help ensure his reelection by dragging the trial past the election in November,” Adams says.
Gill denies that politics fueled his decision to charge Cowley, saying: “What do you expect them to say? ‘Thank you for charging a guy that we represent?’ ”
One deputy prosecutor, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, criticized Gill for revealing too much information about the case when he announced the decision at a press conference. “It’s troubling,” the prosecutor says. “It’s fraught with pitfalls to put out that much detail to justify your decision.”
City Weekly reported in January that Gill had sought to convene a grand jury to evaluate the case. When a panel of judges denied the request, Gill petitioned the state Supreme Court to evaluate what he termed “legal anomalies” in the process.
Gill says charging Cowley does not make the case pending before the Supreme Court moot, adding that the issues he raised to the high court are still “relevant.”
“There’s been nothing easy about this,” Gill says. “I find absolutely no pleasure in finding myself in this situation where we have to forward charges against a police officer.”