The Utah Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday that appear rooted in the shooting death of Danielle Willard, though no attorneys are acknowledging that.
Neither Willard’s name nor those of the two West Valley City police officers who shot and killed her were mentioned during Tuesday’s arguments, or in the lone public court document about the matter. But the arguments did focus on a how a group of state court judges decided against convening a grand jury requested by Deputy Salt Lake County District Attorney Blake Nakamura — the prosecutor handling the Willard case.
The district attorney’s office is challenging the denial. The justices will issue a ruling on Tuesday’s arguments in the coming days or weeks.
In January, City Weekly, citing anonymous sources, reported that Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill attempted to call a grand jury to hear evidence in the Willard case but was rebuffed by a panel of judges.
Gill has declined to comment on the report or any grand juries, but he has acknowledged legal issues have slowed his decision about whether to file criminal charges against the two West Valley City officers involved in Willard’s death. One of the officers, Shaun Cowley, has been fired — for allegedly mishandling evidence, not for the shooting — while the other officer, Kevin Salmon, is on administrative leave.
Gill has already ruled Willard’s killing was not justified under Utah law.
The Utah chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police has been critical of how Gill has handled the Willard case. Ian Adams, the spokesman for the group, issued a statement after the hearing saying it is clear Gill is reluctant to decide on his own whether to file criminal charges.
"The judge presiding over the grand jury commented on what he thought about the D.A.’s presentation last year, and the comment speaks for itself," Adams said, referring to the panels’ purported refusal to convene a grand jury.
Tuesday’s hearing was fast-tracked after the district attorney’s office requested "extraordinary relief." The hearing appeared to focus on issues that will instruct all sides on how to argue the larger issue of whether the grand jury was improperly denied. Attorneys argued whether all the parties and the justices should have transcripts of any grand jury proceedings, and if the Utah Supreme Court should close all or part of the arguments from the public.
The hearing also was notable because it listed Gill’s office as the petitioner and five state court judges as respondents: Terry Christiansen, Steven Hansen, Eric Ludlow, Kate Toomey and W. Brent West.
The Utah judiciary’s own attorney, Brent Johnson, was arguing in front of the Supreme Court on behalf of the lower court judges.
Deputy District Attorney T.J. Tsakalos represented that office. He told the justices his office needs to be allowed to share the transcripts with the other parties so facts can be argued to determine why the judges decided not to impanel a grand jury.
Tsakalos also argued for closing any oral arguments and sealing any court documents that discuss specifics of the underlying case. Tsakalos said such secrecy is necessary to safeguard grand jury proceedings, which typically are not public in Utah.
"Even if we don’t use proper names, it’s pretty easy for someone to discern what we’re talking about," Tsakalos told the justices.
Associate Justice Thomas Lee told attorneys there is a public interest in the matter and the courts need to "strike a balance."
"We should keep secret only what we have to keep secret," Lee said.
Gill, along with Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings, also is investigating issues surrounding former Utah Attorneys General John Swallow and Mark Shurtleff.
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