Two months after prosecutors reopened the investigation into a Cottonwood Heights officer’s deadly 2018 encounter with a 19-year-old armed robbery suspect, they’ve concluded the officer wasn’t legally justified in hitting the teen with his police car.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill had previously found Officer Casey Davies was justified when he shot and killed Zane James. But Gill’s office reopened the case in March after receiving new information — evidence that Davies had rammed James, who was driving a lightweight motorbike, with his car prior to fatally shooting him.
It was the first time Gill has formally reopened a police shooting case in his 12-year tenure as Salt Lake County’s top prosecutor.
Police officers are allowed to use deadly force, such as shooting at someone or hitting them with their car, if they “reasonably believe” that person is a threat to the officer or someone else. Gill concluded that there was no evidence that showed James was a threat to anyone at the time that Davies made the decision to hit him with his car.
Still, Gill said he won’t file charges against the officer because he didn’t have enough evidence to show Davies “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly” hit James.
James was fatally shot May 29, 2018, after police say he robbed a store in Sandy with an airsoft gun. Police said they chased James because he matched the robbery suspect’s description. After James wrecked his bike and began walking away, Davies fired at him four times, hitting him twice. Davies said he saw what he said he believed was James reaching for a gun, and police found a fake gun in his jacket pocket. James died May 31, 2018, at a hospital.
Attorney Sam Meziani, who represents the James family, said in a statement Friday that Gill’s decision vindicates James.
”The public has yet to hear the complete story of Davies’ actions in crashing into Zane James, and then fatally shooting him in the back on May 28, 2018,” Meziani said. “We look forward to the day we will present all the facts to a jury of citizens.”
Attorney Heather White, who represents the Cottonwood Heights Police Department, declined to comment on the ruling. She deferred to Davies’ attorneys. They did not immediately return a request for comment Friday evening.
New evidence, but not enough
Lawsuits filed by James’ parents against Davies and the Cottonwood Heights Police Department led to the reopening of the investigation.
An officer who was scheduled for a deposition asked Cottonwood Heights Lt. Dan Bartlett about that upcoming interview, and mentioned comments from Davies about hitting James with his car. Bartlett alerted the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office and others about those comments.
In a letter released Friday, Gill said that since his office originally ruled the shooting justified, the James family has brought prosecutors GPS evidence from Davies’ patrol vehicle, showing where he was and how fast he was driving the day of the shooting. They also gave him interviews with civilian witnesses.
Prosecutors were considering charging Davies with aggravated assault, Gill said. They did uncover evidence that convinced Gill, he said, that Davies wasn’t legally justified in hitting James with his police car.
But they didn’t have evidence of an intentional, reckless assault to warrant the criminal charge, Gill said. None of those witnesses saw the crash, just the aftermath.
For instance, Gill wrote, a witness said they saw “a wrecked motorcycle” and James “limping away and crouched over as if injured by the motorcycle crash.” This person didn’t respond to follow up interview requests, he said.
“We can conclude that a collision occurred ... ,” Gill wrote. “However, without the ability to eliminate a possibly inadvertent or unintentional collision, we cannot prove Officer Davies’s mental state in the collision.”
The previously unknown use of force
The Salt Lake Tribune first reported the details of Davies striking James with his car last August, when James’ family filed an amended lawsuit against Cottonwood Heights Police Department in federal court.
Through the litigation, the family had obtained a compelled, internal police department interview where Davies said he “made the decision I’m going to run [James] over” and then hit James with his car before shooting him.
Before that disclosure, Gill 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.
And Gill can’t use such interviews, under a 1967 Supreme Court decision in Garrity v. New Jersey. In that case, the court said information obtained through such compelled interviews can’t be used in criminal prosecutions because it violates the officers’ Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
When asked to participate in Gill’s original review, Davies asserted his Fifth Amendment rights and didn’t give an interview.
But Gill could use the more recent comments of Sgt. Ken Dailey, who had been the liaison between Cottonwood Heights police and the outside agency investigating the shooting.
Bartlett wrote in an update to the case in February that Dailey had contacted him, asking why he was scheduled for a deposition in the civil case. 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 Cottonwood Heights 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.
James’ family alleges 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 and said the only body camera footage from the encounter was recorded after Davies shot James.