MICHELLE L. PRICE
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah prosecutors on Thursday charged a former police officer from a troubled department with fatally shooting an unarmed 21-year-old woman during a 2012 drug investigation.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill announced at a news conference Thursday morning that a single count of manslaughter had been filed against Shaun Cowley, 33, a former narcotics officer in West Valley City.
Cowley and another officer fired at Danielle Willard as she backed her car out of a parking spot. The officers had contended their lives were in danger, but Gill said that’s not the case because Cowley was standing on the side of the woman’s car.
“Mr. Cowley acted in a reckless manner, and the evidence that we have does not support that his life was in danger or give him the justification to use the force that he did,” Gill said.
While Cowley and the other officer both fired a total of six shots, Gill said Cowley fired the fatal shot and his office didn’t have enough evidence to justify charging the other officer.
“There was one more than the other who started this process,” Gill said of the officers.
In a statement Thursday afternoon, Cowley’s attorney Lindsay Jarvis called the decision “incredibly disappointing” and said Cowley continues to maintain his innocence.
“Detective Cowley will continue to follow each of the demands now placed on him by the judicial system until this case is concluded. He looks forward to his day in court,” the statement said.
Jarvis said Cowley surrendered at the Salt Lake County jail Thursday afternoon and was booked and released. Court records show he posted $10,000 bail.
At a news conference Thursday afternoon, West Valley City Police Chief Lee Russo said the investigation has been “a long and difficult road” for the department, which supports Gill’s investigation.
“This is a very good police department, and people need to know that,” he said. “It is a singular happening. It’s not reflective of the whole police department, and I think the community needs to recognize that.”
Willard’s mother, Melissa Kennedy, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit last year against the city, Cowley and others in the department. That case is pending.
Mark Geragos, a Los Angeles-based attorney representing her, said Thursday that Gill’s decision to charge Cowley with manslaughter was appropriate.
“It’s a milestone in the family’s quest for justice for Danielle,” he said. “We’re hopeful that now the truth will come out.”
Gill’s office has been weighing whether to file charges since he ruled last August that the shooting was unjustified.
Willard’s shooting touched off an internal investigation in Utah’s second-largest city, as the West Valley City Police Department uncovered evidence that drug-squad officers mishandled evidence, lost drugs and money and kept small tokens from drug busts as souvenirs.
The city disbanded the drug unit and disciplined the nine officers on the squad. Prosecutors threw out more than 120 cases the officers had been involved with, citing questions about the credibility of the investigations and evidence.
Cowley was fired in September, the only officer to be dismissed. Russo cited Cowley’s “pattern of behavior” that undermined investigations as the reason for the dismissal.
Cowley has been challenging the firing, but it’s unclear how the manslaughter charge will affect that process.
If convicted, he could face one to 15 years in prison.
The case is not the first time Gill’s office has charged a West Valley City officer for shooting while on duty. In March 2012, Jared Cardon was charged with a misdemeanor count of reckless endangerment for shooting at a car driven by a man fleeing an accident in 2011. The man was not injured, and Gill’s office later dismissed the charge, saying expert testimony in the case had changed.
Associated Press writers Annie Knox and Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.
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