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Experts discuss likelihood of conviction after former police officer charged with manslaughter

Posted at 10:01 PM, Jun 20, 2014

WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- Now that a former West Valley City Police Department detective has been charged in connection with the death of Danielle Willard, some believe the District Attorney will have a hard time winning the case.

It's rare for a police officer to be charged for an on-duty shooting in Utah. Also, FOX 13 News found that in the last decade, three Utah officers who were charged had their cases dismissed for various reasons.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill doesn't believe Shaun Cowley intended to kill Danielle Willard almost two years ago but that Cowley acted recklessly. And Gill says the facts show Cowley's life wasn't threatened. Cowley disputes that. If convicted, he could serve one to 15 years in prison. However, defense attorney Greg Skordas thinks it would be tough for the D.A. to land a conviction.

"Just the whole idea of prosecuting a police officer for doing something in the line of duty, it's very difficult for a jury," Skordas said.

“You have to prove that they were reckless in making that split second decision,” added Juan Becerra, head of investigations with Korr Defense Group.

Becerra spent more than 20 years with the FBI and at one point he was investigated for an officer-involved shooting. He questions whether Shaun Cowley can get a fair trial, given all the publicity.

"If this was a private citizen involved in a shooting, would we be showing diagrams? Would we have press conferences prior to charging an individual like this?” Becerra said, acknowledging that federal law enforcement handles cases differently from local jurisdictions.

Becerra said police procedures, especially use of force, and the science behind the shooting will be closely examined as the case moves forward. Meanwhile, it's not the first time Sim Gill has criminally charged a police officer.

Back in 2011, another former West Valley City officer, Jared Cardon, was charged with reckless endangerment for shooting at a driver who tried to flee after a traffic stop. The D.A. later dismissed the charge, saying expert testimony the case hinged on, had changed.

Now the question is: Can Sim Gill successfully prosecute the Cowley case?

"I see a long road to a conviction if we're going to be able to prove his state of mind, his recklessness and his reckless disregard for human life," Becerra said.

Gill said he stands by the case and that detectives from three police agencies unanimously felt the manslaughter charge was warranted. The Utah Fraternal Order of Police believes Cowley has been treated unfairly. Now, a jury will decide who to believe and if Cowley should serve time in a case that could take up to a year to resolve, Skordas said.