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Calls mount for charging decision in Danielle Willard shooting

Published March 30, 2014 10:12 pm

Courts • Despite the unjustified-shooting ruling, the D.A. has had to navigate entanglements.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It's been nearly 16 months since West Valley City police officers shot and killed Danielle Willard during a drug investigation. At this point, there may be one thing people on all sides agree upon.

They would like a decision about whether Officers Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon will face criminal charges.

Cowley and Salmon want a decision. Willard's mother wants a decision. The Fraternal Order of Police wants a decision.

West Valley City government — which is still paying Salmon while the decision is pending — would like a decision.

Even the guy who will make the decision, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, wants a decision. "Nobody can appreciate the urgency to resolve this matter more than me," Gill said in a recent interview.

Gill has already deemed the shooting not justifiable under Utah law. He said there are "legal issues" delaying a decision about criminal charges, but those could be resolved by mid-April.

Gill acknowledged the legal issues arose in December or January. He declined to specify if those issues revolve around attempts to convene a grand jury to review the shooting, as reported in January by City Weekly. The newspaper said a panel of judges rebuffed Gill, at least in part because they viewed the case as political and not appropriate for a grand jury.

Earlier this year, Gill lobbied the Legislature to make it easier to convene a grand jury in public corruption cases. No changes passed.

Asking a grand jury to review the case would largely remove Gill from the decision about whether to charge Cowley and Salmon. But Gill could still opt to charge them the same way nearly all other criminal cases in Utah are filed — by a prosecutor deciding there's enough evidence and submitting paperwork to a courthouse. Gill acknowledged there's no legal issue preventing him from doing that.

"We're hoping to resolve these issues by mid-April and that will give us some very clear direction where to go," Gill said.

The delays are increasing criticism of Gill.

Melissa Kennedy, Willard's mother, said Friday she is "literally, completely stressed all the time trying to figure out what is really going on." She said she last met with Gill in November and was told a decision was on the way.

"When he tells us he's going to give us an answer at the end of December and it's April now, you have to wonder what's going on," Kennedy said.

Cowley's attorney, Lindsay Jarvis, doesn't believe her client committed a crime when he shot Willard, 21, on Nov. 2, 2012, but she wants a conclusion one way or the other. The delays are causing additional hardships for Cowley, she said, who next month will go to West Valley City's Civil Service Commission and ask for his job back.

"This is something your family has to deal with, that your children have to deal with," Jarvis said of the delay. "Every time your name comes up, people know who you are."

Jarvis sees no reason for the delay.

"The reality is the evidence isn't changing," Jarvis said. "What Gill received in March [2013] is the information he has today."

Shima Baradaran, an associate professor of law at the University of Utah, said a delay in deciding whether to charge a crime is not necessarily bad. Some people don't understand that a prosecutor's role is not always to bring charges as soon as the law allows. A prosecutor, she said in an email to The Tribune, must use his or her discretion to best serve the public.

"A delay in making a charging decision is not a miscarriage of justice," Baradaran wrote. "A decision to charge someone with a crime should be made very thoughtfully and after full investigation."

But not everyone sees the delay as Gill being judicious. Earlier this month, Gill launched his re-election campaign on the Democratic ticket.

Ian Adams, the spokesman for the Utah chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police believes Gill is using the Willard shooting to help his campaign.

"It's beyond the pale that here we are 500 days later and we still don't have an answer as to what his office wants to do," Adams said.

He said the chapter has no opinion on whether charges should be filed, but doesn't like how long it has taken.

"If the judiciary doesn't want to see this case hidden from public view, I'm not sure why Sim Gill's office would either," Adams said, referring to the report of a grand jury. "They've taken a bite at that apple. They were told no."

The police organization previously criticized Gill's determination that shooting Willard was not justified.

On Monday, the organization endorsed Republican Steve Nelson, the violent felonies unit chief at the Salt Lake County district attorney's office, to replace Gill. The chapter in 2010 endorsed both Gill and his opponent, Lohra Miller.

The organization's attorney is representing Salmon, who remains on administrative leave but is drawing a paycheck from West Valley City, pending a decision about charges. Cowley was fired — not for the Willard shooting, but on accusations he mishandled evidence.

"We released our investigation to Mr. Gill one year ago," West Valley City Manager Wayne Pyle said in a statement issued Friday. "While we respect the role and responsibility of the District Attorney in reviewing this matter, we believe there has been more than enough time to make a decision as to whether or not to initiate a criminal prosecution, if warranted. In the interest of justice and our public accountability, we would be pleased to see that a decision in this matter be made."

Gill said it would have been easy for his office to do a cursory investigation of the Willard shooting, declare the shooting justified and move on. Instead, Gill said, his office has been thorough with what has been a nuanced case.

"If I could have done this faster sooner, I absolutely would have done it faster sooner," Gill said, "because who's taking a beating on this? It's me."

ncarlisle@sltrib.com Twitter: @natecarlisle