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Expert Witness Testimony in Utah Police Shooting Hearing

A former Utah police detective was cleared of all manslaughter charges this week stemming from a 2012 shooting of an unarmed woman due to insufficient evidence to prosecute.  During a three day hearing last week, prosecutors called forensic and police expert witnesses to argue that Shaun Cowley acted inappropriately when he opened fired during a drug investigation, and should therefore be charged with manslaughter.

Utah Detective Fatally Shoots Unarmed Woman

In 2012, Shaun Cowley, then a detective with Utah’s West Valley county police department, investigated a potential drug deal involving 21-year-old Danielle Willard.  Cowley and his partner, Detective Kevin Salmon, approached Ms. Willard’s vehicle in front of a residence that West Valley PD suspected was used for drug and weapon sales.  According to Cowley’s testimony, as the two officers approached Willard’s car to make contact with her she put a black substance in her mouth, causing him to draw his weapon as a safety measure.  When Willard was uncooperative in opening the door, Cowley returned to the police cruiser for a pry bar to break into the vehicle.  With his back turned, Cowley heard the sound of Ms. Willard’s vehicle accelerating towards him in reverse, which caused him to fire two fatal shots.

Throughout the investigation into Cowley’s use of fatal force, the former detective has maintained that he believed his life, and the life of his partner, were in danger.  Cowley testified to investigators that he had reason to believe Ms. Willard was willing to kill the two officers with her vehicle, causing him to make a split-second decision to defend himself.  Although Salmon was not hit by Willard’s vehicle, Cowley was grazed and suffered a minor knee injury.

Prosecutors sought a charge for 2nd degree felony manslaughter alleging Cowley used unreasonable force against Ms. Willard, and called several forensic and police use-of-force expert witnesses to bolster the case.

Prosecutors Rely on Experts to Prove Excessive Use of Police Force

Last week, the parties presented evidence and witnesses at a preliminary hearing that would determine whether or not Cowley could face charges for 2nd degree manslaughter – a charge that carries up to 15-years in prison if a defendant is convicted.  The judge allowed both sides to submit physical evidence and witness testimony, and prosecutors took full advantage by calling expert witnesses to support the state’s key argument that Cowley was not in danger of being hit by Willard’s car. By showing that the officer was not at risk when he opened fire, prosecutors hoped to convince the judge that Cowley acted inappropriately and could therefore be charged with 2nd degree manslaughter.

Prosecutors first called forensic scientist Michael Haag who analyzed the scene and testified that Cowley was not standing directly behind the car at the time of the incident, casting doubt on the sincerity of his claim that he feared for his life.  Mr. Haag based his expert testimony on the trajectory of the shots that Cowley fired at Willard’s car, arguing that, in his estimation, the bullets did not come from directly behind the vehicle.  Prosecutors argued that the bullet trajectory suggested that Cowley was standing to the side of Ms. Willard’s car, which not only contradicted the defendant’s testimony, but also meant that he was not in danger at the time of the shooting.

To further the argument that Cowley acted inappropriately, prosecutors also called Salt Lake City police Detective Chris Kotrodimos as a police procedure expert witness.  Detective Kotrodimos testified that neither Cowley nor his partner, Kevin Salmon, followed proper procedure during the stop.  By drawing their weapons, Kotrodimos argued, the two police officers had unnecessarily escalated the incident to the point where deadly force was a possible outcome – an unacceptable maneuver given the circumstances.

Defense Team Attacks Prosecution Expert Witnesses

In response, Cowley’s defense attorneys launched an attack on the validity of the prosecution’s expert witness testimony.  Calling Mr. Haag’s forensic analysis a “guess,” defense attorneys forced the prosecution’s expert to concede that the trajectory of the fatal bullet could not be identified with absolute certainty.  Moving on to Detective Kotrodimos, the defense pointed out that he had read Cowley’s file before analyzing the case, a fact that may have clouded his interpretation of the incident and improperly influenced his expert testimony.

Defense attorneys went on to argue that former detective Cowley acted in a span of 2 – 3 seconds with the victim’s car approaching him at a rapid speed, and his reaction was appropriate given the circumstances.  Ultimately, the judge found the prosecution expert witnesses to be insufficient, and agreed with the defense that Shaun Cowley did not use excessive police force in the shooting of Danielle Willard. Mr. Cowley has been cleared of all charges stemming from the incident.