- Associated Press - Thursday, October 9, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - A Utah judge tossed a manslaughter charge Thursday against a former police officer in the fatal shooting of an unarmed woman during a drug investigation.

“No evidence has been presented to establish that the conduct was not legally justifiable,” Judge L.A. Dever said.

Danielle Willard, 21, was shot and killed as she backed up her car in 2012. Shaun Cowley says he fired the two shots because he feared he would be hit and killed. Prosecutors argued that Cowley wasn’t in Willard’s path.

Willard’s mother, Melissa Kennedy, did not speak to reporters after the hearing. Prosecutor Blake Nakamura maintained Thursday that there was enough evidence to warrant the manslaughter charge, but said he would respect the judge’s decision.

After the hearing, Cowley, 34, said the two years since the shooting have taken a toll.

“I knew what happened that day. I knew I was justified and this was a long road to get there,” said an emotional Cowley.

The ruling came after a three-day preliminary hearing where prosecutors argued the angle of the shots showed Cowley wasn’t in danger of being hit by Willard’s car. The defense maintained the car hit Cowley’s knee and he had seconds to react, the Deseret News reported.

Supporters on both sides of the high profile case filled the courtroom Thursday. People wore red shirts stating “Justice for Danielle Willard,” while others wore blue shirts that said “Team Cowley.” A sign on the door warned people they could be removed for outbursts or comments during the proceedings, and bailiffs asked observers on the two sides to leave separately.

Willard supporter Scott Simons, who said his daughter was also killed in a separate police shooting, called the ruling outrageous.

“The state of Utah ought to be ashamed of themselves that they allow police officers to kill innocent people, unarmed women,” he said. “It just shows the state’s inability to prosecute police officers.”

Ian Adams, a spokesman for the Utah chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police union, said the manslaughter charge was politically motivated and called for an investigation.

Cowley and his partner “have spent two years with their family being dragged through the mud,” he said. “It’s time to restore their ability to walk with their heads held high.”

Salt Lake District County Attorney Sim Gill said politics weren’t a factor in his decision to file the charge.

“I call it like I see it,” he said.

Cowley was fired from his position as a narcotics detective in West Valley City last year following an internal investigation tipped off by Willard’s shooting. The investigation led local and federal prosecutors to drop more than 100 cases handled by the West Valley drug squad, citing a lack of credible evidence. The police department found officers had mishandled evidence, kept souvenirs from drug busts and possibly lost drugs and money, among other issues.

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