Charges dropped against parole officer in shooting that was ruled unjustified

Prosecutors are dropping criminal charges against a parole agent who shot a parolee in what the district attorney deemed to be an unjustified shooting.

"We have an ongoing responsibility to evaluate the strength of the case," said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill.

Adult Probation and Parole Agent Andrew O’Gwin was charged with 2nd-degree felony aggravated assault after he shot parolee Joe Gomez on May 13, 2017, at a traffic signal in Murray. Gomez was a passenger in a car that pulled up to a red light next to O’Gwin when he hopped out of the car near O’Gwin’s driver-side window.

Gomez said he jumped out of the car because he was burned by the embers of a cigarette, according to a report by Gill. O'Gwin said Gomez punched O'Gwin's window "as hard as he could," and O'Gwin fired five shots, hitting Gomez three times, Gill wrote.

But none of the other witnesses at the stoplight corroborated O’Gwin’s claims, Gill wrote. In fact, one witness instead corroborated Gomez’s account, saying Gomez did not touch O’Gwin’s car. Gomez’ hand wasn’t injured and the window wasn’t damaged from being struck. Gill ruled the shooting unjustified and charged O’Gwin in April 2018.

Since then, Gill said, "we had some changed circumstances."

The witness who had said conclusively that Gomez did not touch O'Gwin's car later told prosecutors that he drove up to the scene during the encounter; earlier, Gill said, the witness had reported being parked there the whole time. It doesn't substantially change the account, Gill said, but defense attorneys would likely seize upon any discrepancy between his testimony and earlier statements.

Meanwhile, Gomez was charged in federal court with drug crimes and money laundering.

Federal agents who have custody over Gomez while he awaits trial said he would require a court order to be available to testify in O'Gwin's case, Gill said. The legal process would be onerous — and possibly not worth it for a witness now facing federal charges, which may make him less credible to a jury, Gill said.

However, Gill said, "we don't have anything that is going to alter our original finding" that the shooting was unjustified.

Nonetheless, O’Gwin’s attorneys have asked Gill to re-evaluate the shooting.

"If it's true ... that the facts changed enough that they needed to drop the criminal case, how could the acts not be different enough that that would not matter for the purpose of evaluating use of force?" said Jeremy Jones, one of O'Gwin's attorneys.

"We believe the charges were dropped because he never did anything wrong in the first instance," Jones added.

O’Gwin remains on paid leave nearly two years after the shooting, said his attorney. “Given what we believe to be clearly the facts of this case that are borne out by the evidence, we expect that he’ll be put back to work,” Jones said.

O’Gwin was Gomez’s parole officer and had tried to visit Gomez earlier on the day of the shooting, Gill wrote. But Gomez and O’Gwin both said they did not recognize each other; the man driving the car Gomez was in said Gomez had described O’Gwin as “pretty cool.” Neither reported a contentious relationship. At the time of the shooting, Gomez was on parole from prison sentences for drug and weapons charges.

Gomez sued O’Gwin in federal court, alleging civil rights violations. The lawsuit claims O’Gwin was on “'stay-awake’ medication” at the time of the shooting, at least 12 hours into his shift. That case is pending.