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DA now says officer wasn't justified in hitting man with car before killing him in 2019

Murals honor Zane James, a 19-year-old man who died after being shot in the back by police, and others near 300 West and 800 South in Salt Lake City on Sept. 1, 2020. The district attorney said Friday that a Cottonwood Heights police officer was not legally justified in hitting James before that officer shot and killed him in 2019, but no charges will be filed.

Murals honor Zane James, a 19-year-old man who died after being shot in the back by police, and others near 300 West and 800 South in Salt Lake City on Sept. 1, 2020. The district attorney said Friday that a Cottonwood Heights police officer was not legally justified in hitting James before that officer shot and killed him in 2019, but no charges will be filed. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

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COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — After reviewing new evidence, the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office has determined a Cottonwood Heights police officer was not legally justified in using deadly force with his patrol car against a 19-year-old man in 2018.

While the controversial shooting and killing of Zane Anthony James by Cottonwood Heights police officer Casey Davies remains legally justified, Davies' use of his patrol car to knock James down as he was trying to speed away on his motorcycle was not, according to the conclusion announced Friday.

Yet despite the new finding, District Attorney Sim Gill has declined to file any criminal charges against the officer.

"We determined we lacked proof of all the elements of a criminal charge. We also determined we lacked sufficient quantity and quality of evidence to support each element of a criminal charge," Gill's office said in a letter released Friday.

Following the announcement, Sam Meziani, the attorney representing James' parents, Aaron and Tiffany James, released a statement saying Zane James has now been vindicated.

"The D.A. correctly concluded Davies was not justified in using deadly force when he crashed into Zane. Although the D.A. determined he did not have evidence to meet the very high criminal standard to prove the car crash was intentional, the D.A. did not have, and could not use Davies' Garrity statement. (A Garrity statement is a police officer's statement of what occurred in an investigated event.) In the civil case brought by the family against Cottonwood Heights, the court has already ruled that Davies' own statements contained in the Garrity statement are admissible.

"The public has yet to hear the complete story of Davies' actions in crashing into Zane James, and then fatally shooting him in the back on May 29, 2018. We look forward to the day we will present all the facts to a jury of citizens."

The shooting prompted multiple public protests, including one that turned violent and resulted in at least eight arrests.

On May 29, 2018, it was reported that Davies was headed to work when he heard other officers pursuing a man on a motorcycle who was suspected in a pair of armed robberies. Police believe James robbed a Smith's Food and Drug, 2039 E. 9400 South, at gunpoint about 3:15 a.m., and then a Macey's grocery store, 7850 S. 1300 East, just as it opened at 6 a.m.

While it was originally reported that Davies was on his way to work that morning, the civil lawsuit contends there is information to show Davies was already at the Cottonwood Heights Police Department when the call went out.

About 10 minutes after the Macey's robbery, Davies spotted the motorcycle. A short pursuit ended in a residential area near 6675 S. 2200 East.

The original investigation concluded that James hit a speed bump and crashed his motorcycle. He got up and ran from the officer, putting his hands near his waistband as he fled, according to police.

In the front yard of a home at 2209 E. 6675 South, James was shot twice in the back. A realistic-looking gun, which was later determined to be a pellet gun, was found in James' pocket. James later died after being taken off life support. The shooting was determined by Gill to be legally justified.

In 2019, James' parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Davies and Cottonwood Heights. Then in August, after receiving the internal investigation from Cottonwood Heights police, the lawsuit was updated, claiming Davies' own version of events as stated during an internal investigation was not consistent with earlier statements. Instead of James wiping out on his motorcycle, Davies claimed he saw James reaching for something as he fled, prompting him to make the decision to "run him over," the lawsuit states.

When the James family presented this new information and witness statements to Gill, he decided to reopen the officer's use-of-deadly-force investigation into Davies in February — the first time he has ever done so with such a case.

"There were certainly two use-of-force events," he said. "We were never presented the evidence with this potential second one."

According to Gill's decision released Friday, in March — as the parties involved in the civil suit prepared for depositions — a sergeant with the Cottonwood Heights Police Department told his command staff that Davies had told him that he had hit James' motorcycle with his patrol car. With that new information, Cottonwood Heights reinvoked the officer-involved critical incident protocol and asked Salt Lake City police to investigate the new claim.

Gill said evidence regarding Davies hitting James' motorcycle was not presented to his office during the first use-of-force review, and neither was the information that Davies told his sergeant that he hit him. That sergeant was not interviewed during the original investigation.

"These facts were not available to me," Gill said.

But once he became aware of that statement, Gill said investigators now had someone whom they could question directly.

Davies, who no longer works for Cottonwood Heights, declined to be interviewed for the new use-of-deadly-force investigation, just as he declined to be interviewed as part the initial shooting investigation. Gill noted that that decision is Davies' right.

The report says that "for an officer to reasonably believe that a motorcycle driver fleeing from police constitutes a threat of death or serious bodily injury" to the officer or another person, there has to be another element other than simply someone fleeing. "Such was not the case here, and we're not aware of evidence to support a finding that … deadly force was necessary."

In this case, Gill said Davies' patrol vehicle could be considered a use of deadly force. And it was a separate episode from the shooting.

Because Gill's office does not have enough evidence to show the context of how or why the collision between the patrol car and motorcycle happened — whether it be physical or collaborating evidence — he said he could not file a criminal charge against the officer.

"In this case, we don't have evidence to support a finding that Mr. James posed a threat of death or serious bodily injury to officer Davies or others at the time of the alleged contact with the motorcycle," Gill's report states. "For example, there's no evidence that Mr. James pointed a gun or threatened someone with a weapon as he fled from officers."

The James' family civil lawsuit against Davies is ongoing. Several deadlines have been set throughout 2022 for motions and other court documents to be filed.


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Pat Reavy is a longtime police and courts reporter. He joined the team in 2021 after many years of reporting for the Deseret News


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