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With a judge on Thursday dismissing the criminal case against the only police officer charged in the death of Danielle Willard, the question arises: Will that impact Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill's prospects for re-election in November?

His opponent, Republican Steve Nelson, already had the support of police associations before 3rd District Judge L.A. Dever ruled that the manslaughter charge Gill filed against former West Valley City police officer Shaun Cowley in the fatal shooting of Willard did not merit a trial.

Will the voting public now be more inclined to support Nelson, a veteran prosecutor in Gill's office, or will they stick with the one-term Democratic incumbent who came into office pledging to restore public trust, even if that put him at odds with law-enforcement groups?

"I work with law enforcement. I don't work for law enforcement," Gill told The Salt Lake Tribune in a recent interview before Dever's ruling, contending his responsibility is to pursue social justice and to ensure the integrity of the legal system.

"That tells citizens that you might not like the result, but you can trust the process to get there," added Gill, 53, who grew up in Kearns.

To Nelson, 39, a West High School graduate, justice was not served in the Willard case because it took so long for Cowley to be charged. And when he was, Nelson said, Gill turned it into political theater, holding a news conference with charts and graphs of bullet trajectories, which was unfair to the officer.

"Everybody deserves a fair shake when it comes to dealing with the District Attorney's Office," he told The Tribune before the ruling.

Gill said he publicly described the reasoning behind his actions in the interest of transparency, just as he did in the filing of felony charges against former state Attorneys General Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow.

Nelson felt his boss was grandstanding in that case as well and that Gill should have turned over the investigation and prosecution to attorneys more experienced in racketeering cases, someone like himself.

"[Racketeering] cases are tough," he said. "You need your best prosecutors on it."

Aiming to be the best is something both of these overachievers seem to have in common.

Gill, whose Facebook posts often are erudite treatises, graduated from the University of Utah in history and philosophy and obtained his law degree from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore. He was Salt Lake City's chief prosecutor for a decade before defeating District Attorney Lohra Miller in 2010.

Nelson has a bachelor's degree from Westminster College, where he was student body president. He then went to the U of U, receiving both a law degree and a doctorate in political science. He has been a county prosecutor for 7.5 years, handling gang prosecutions, narcotics enforcement and violent felonies.

"I have a unique skill set desperately needed in this office," he said.

Gill did not dispute Nelson's capabilities as a prosecutor, but said the district attorney position requires much more than courtroom skills. Besides prosecuting crime, the office represents every county agency. Gill said he has beefed up the civil side of the office, established systems to modernize its technology and developed fair pay scales for all employees.

Nelson contended Gill did not follow established hiring procedures when he came into office four years ago and is not popular with employees. "This race is not about management. It's about leadership," he said.

One issue the two men definitely disagree on is Early Case Resolution, an alternative approach to dealing with misdemeanors and lower-level felony cases.

Gill has been at the forefront of promoting it, arguing it saves taxpayer dollars by focusing limited resources on hardened criminals and allowing lesser offenders to receive the mental or behavioral health care that most need.

It's a matter, he said, of being humane and treating people with dignity. "I want to viscerally feel we're doing the right thing for the right reason …. That's fundamentally different than just prosecuting."

Nelson believes Early Case Resolution is a failure.

It has "sacrificed efficiency for speed — and I have a problem with that," he said, maintaining that three-quarters of offenders who are released early through this system end up back in jail, often for more serious crimes than they were booked for initially.

"That's why police officers support me," Nelson said. "They're frustrated seeing people on the street who should be behind bars."

Twitter: @sltribmikeg —

Online: More on the Danielle Willard case

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