Prosecutors reopen investigation into fatal police shooting of Zane James in Cottonwood Heights

Information about an officer causing James to crash his motorcycle before the shooting came to light six months ago.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Aaron James holds a photograph of his son, Zane James. The James family initially filed a civil rights complaint in 2019, alleging excessive force was used by a Cottonwood Heights officer in the fatal shooting of Zane James on May 29, 2018. Salt Lake County prosecutor reopened the investigation into the officer in February 2022.

Prosecutors have reopened a nearly 4-year-old police shooting investigation, six months after court documents revealed the Cottonwood Heights officer who fired had first intentionally caused the crash of an armed robbery suspect fleeing on a motorbike.

This is the first time District Attorney Sim Gill has formally reopened a police shooting case in his 12-year tenure as Salt Lake County’s top prosecutor.

The Salt Lake Tribune first reported the details of the crash last August, when Zane James’ family filed an amended lawsuit in federal court as part of their ongoing civil case against Cottonwood Heights Police Department. James, 19, died two days after he was shot.

His family alleges Officer Casey Davies used excessive force when he shot James in 2018 and that the department tried to cover it up, including by destroying video of the shooting. The department has denied these claims.

Through the lawsuit, the James family obtained Davies’ compelled, internal interview, in which Davies told an investigator he “made the decision I’m going to run [James] over” and then hit James with his car before shooting him.

The family’s August civil filing was the first time Davies’ initial use of deadly force was publicly revealed.

Gill’s office is required by law to investigate all officer uses of deadly force. But he had not investigated Davies’ decision to hit James — no one had witnessed it, and the only source of information about it was Davies’ internal interview. Under the 1967 Supreme Court decision in Garrity v. New Jersey, information obtained through such compelled interviews can’t be used in criminal prosecutions.

To investigate, Gill explained after the family’s revelation in the filing, he would need to obtain information from outside Davies’ internal interview. And that’s what happened earlier this month.

Cottonwood Heights police updated the report from Davies’ May 29, 2018, shooting of James last week, at around 9:30 p.m. on Feb. 8. The document previously had only described the shooting; the added material acknowledged Davies’ first deadly use of force with his car.

Lt. Dan Bartlett wrote in the update that Sgt. Ken Dailey had contacted him, asking why he was scheduled for an upcoming deposition in the civil case. Dailey had been the liaison between Cottonwood Heights police and the outside agency investigating the shooting.

During that conversation, Bartlett explained, Dailey told him that Davies had told Dailey about hitting James with his car.

Dailey wrote in the new update: “[Davies] said he forgot his body worn camera. Officer Davies also commented about bumping the motorcycle with his police vehicle and the suspect reaching in his waistband.”

Bartlett wrote that “this information was new to me and I felt that I needed to inquire further.” He said he told police Chief Robby Russo and called the Salt Lake City Police Department and the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office to reopen the investigation.

However, a document released to The Tribune through an open records request shows Cottonwood Heights police leadership should have known about the car-related deadly use of force as early as June 21, 2018.

A letter was sent from a force review board to Russo with that date — less than a month after the shooting — and it said Davies was being investigated for two deadly uses of force: “1) Use of a vehicle” and “2) Firearm.”

Cottonwood Heights Police Department directed questions about the case to attorney Heather White. White declined to be interviewed but provided a written statement that said the city is aware prosecutors have reopened the case.

“The City continues to maintain that Officer Davies used legal force in shooting Zane James,” the statement read. “The City stands behind its officers’ actions relating to the shooting and will continue to defend them against the James family’s claims.”

The review board found Davies hadn’t violated policy. Its members said they recognized “Davies’ ability to remain calm and professional and think clearly throughout the duration of this rapidly unfolding incident.”

They found Davies’ “conscious decision to use deadly force was based upon sound reasoning and dictated by the subject’s actions.”

James’ parents, Aaron and Tiffany, have been advocating for a reexamination of the case for years and said in a statement that they were grateful Gill reopened the case.

“But we are also deeply disappointed that the City of Cottonwood Heights and CHPD is still unwilling to take accountability for the policies and culture that ultimately led to Officer Davies’ multiple uses of deadly force to stop a 19-year-old that he knew how to find at his home later,” the statement read. “Zane would be alive today but for this decision and this culture.”

They said in a statement last August that “Officer Davies’ (Garrity) statement is irrefutable evidence Zane’s death was both illegal and should have never happened.”

White has previously told The Tribune that “there is no cover-up” in this case. She said court documents filed in the case that contradict Davies’ statements were mistakes, based on her filing motions without reading the Garrity report.

Davies eventually fired at James four times, hitting him twice, after he saw what he said he believed was James reaching for a gun. Police found a fake gun in James’ jacket pocket. James died May 31, 2018, at the hospital.

Davies asserted his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and didn’t participate in Gill’s initial review, which found the shooting legally justified.

While all of Gill’s use of force reviews include a disclaimer that rulings are based on facts they have at the time and that conclusions could change if new evidence comes to light, this is the first time in Gill has reopened a case.

“There was enough concern about the materiality of the new evidence such that it requires us to reopen,” Gill said.

He said a team of investigators will gather more information and reevaluate their previous findings, based on what they learn. They will look into whether Cottonwood Heights police had relevant information to share with prosecutors and withheld it, he said.

Gill declined to comment on whether anyone at the department could face criminal charges if investigators found they’d withheld information.

Meanwhile, Utah lawmakers are considering a bill that would bar Garrity statements, like the one Davies made and the James family obtained, from being released to the public in open records requests.

The bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. Ryan Wilcox, will go before the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee on Friday morning.

The Tribune has recently been involved in multiple legal battles trying to get departments to turn over these records. The State Records Committee has sided with The Tribune and ruled departments should release the records, but some, including Cottonwood Heights, fought the ruling.

The Tribune and Cottonwood Heights later agreed to dismiss the case, after The Tribune received the requested Garrity document outside the records-request process, according to court filings.