Former federal judge defends ex-West Valley officer charged with manslaughter


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SALT LAKE CITY — A former federal judge and University of Utah law professor will help defend a former West Valley City detective charged with manslaughter.

Paul Cassell, who teaches criminal law at the University of Utah, became one of Shaun Cowley's defense attorneys Monday, court records show.

Cassell told The Associated Press that Cowley's life was in danger when he shot a 21-year-old unarmed woman during a drug investigation, and he never should have been charged.

The woman, Danielle Willard, was backing her car out of a parking space when Cowley and another officer fired at her in November 2012. The officers told investigators that they confronted her after seeing her buy drugs in a parking lot.

"He was facing a risk of serious bodily injury and even death, and in that situation is entitled to use deadly force to protect himself and to protect his partner," Cassell said.

When Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill charged Cowley in June, Gill said Cowley was standing next to the car and was not in danger of being hit.

Gill said Monday he has "immense respect" for Cassell but disagrees with him.

"I respect his opinion, but that's exactly what it is," Gill said. "It's his opinion as defense counsel."

Cassell, who spent five years as a judge for the U.S. District Court of Utah before stepping down in 2007, said he reviewed evidence in the case at the request of the police union.

Cassell said he was not an expert witness and was not paid to do the review.

"The conclusion I came to is that charges should not have been filed," he said. "I was so convinced that the charges shouldn't have been filed that I asked if I could join the defense team."

He said he had been paid for two months and hopes the case will be thrown out at that point. If it's not, Cassell said he'll work the case for free.

He said that if Cowley is convicted, it could discourage other officers from using their weapons when they need to.

Cowley was charged 10 months after Gill's office ruled the shooting was unjustified. He has not yet entered a plea.

The district attorney's office has upheld the use of police force in most other cases, including four cases that occurred after Willard's shooting was ruled unjustified.

"It hasn't deterred any officers, and it will not deter any future officers because they're well-trained," Gill said.

Gill noted that five detectives from three different police departments were part of the investigative team that concluded charges should be filed.

The ability to review and question whether police should use deadly force is key to the integrity of the justice system, Gill said.

In a 40-page report released by Gill's office, investigators said Cowley and the other officer fired at Willard's car as she backed up. Cowley was standing to the side of the vehicle while the other officer was standing in front of it, investigator said.

Cowley has said he was struck by the bumper of Willard's car as it backed out.

Cowley appeared in court Monday, and his attorneys filed a motion asking a judge to dismiss the case. Judge Robin Reese did not rule on the request but scheduled a hearing for Aug. 5.

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