By Gene Johnson Associated Press
TACOMA — The voyeurism trial of a missing Utah woman’s father-in-law took on the tenor of a creepy slideshow Wednesday, as jurors saw images of young neighbor girls he is accused of filming — and then heard testimony from the girls themselves.
Steve Powell, 62, is the father-in-law of Susan Powell, who disappeared from her home in West Valley City, Utah, in late 2009. He was arrested last September, after investigators searching his home for evidence in Susan Powell’s disappearance came across computer disks with what they described as thousands of images of women and girls who seemed unaware they were being photographed.
Those filmed, prosecutors say, included the neighbor girls, identified in court only by their initials, A.H. and J.H., who were about 8 and 10 when the images were recorded in 2006-07. They testified quietly and nervously that it never occurred to them that someone might be filming them as they washed, got dressed or used the toilet in their second-floor bathroom.
They often kept the bathroom door open when they did so, which would have enabled someone to see in from Steven Powell’s bedroom in the house next door.
“Me and my sister were afraid to take a bath at nighttime if my parents weren’t upstairs,” the younger one said.
Their mother also took the witness stand, answering “absolutely not” when asked if she ever gave anyone permission to record those images, many of which appeared to be still images taken from a video recording.
In February, Steve Powell’s son, Susan’s husband Josh Powell, attacked his two boys with a hatchet and ignited an explosive fire in which he and the boys died. Josh Powell was the prime suspect in Susan’s disappearance.
Among the images recovered from Steve Powell’s home were many of Susan Powell that appeared to have been filmed without her knowledge, investigators said. There were also journals in which Steve Powell detailed his obsession with Susan Powell, they said.
Much of that evidence has been barred from the trial as unduly prejudicial against the defendant. Steve Powell is not charged with acts of voyeurism involving Susan Powell because authorities can’t prove she didn’t know about the filming.
Susan Powell’s father, Chuck Cox, said it was obvious that the images of Susan were recorded without her permission.
“Clearly their strongest evidence on anything is on Susan being a victim,” Cox said. “I don’t get it. Does she not count?”
Defense attorney Mark Quigley told jurors during his opening statement Wednesday that he did not expect Steve Powell to testify. He doesn’t have any burden of proof in the case, and it’s up to prosecutors to provide enough evidence to convict him of charges that he secretly filmed the girls, he said.
“You know about Josh Powell and Susan Powell, and we all know that’s not what this case is about,” Quigley told the jury. “What I want you to focus on is the sufficiency of the state’s evidence.”
Steve Powell faces 14 counts of voyeurism. Judge Ronald Culpepper threw out one charge of possession of child pornography, saying the state’s proffered evidence didn’t fit the definition of that crime.
The first witness in the case was Pierce County sheriff’s detective Gary Sanders, who described how detectives found the photos and graphically described them as jurors watched. The images were projected on a screen turned away from courtroom spectators.
“You can see she’s using the bathroom, underwear down to mid-thighs,” Sanders said. “Now another scene, both victims in the bath. … And another bath scene. … There she is putting on pajamas ….”
In cross-examining the detective and the mother of the girls, Quigley elicited that other adult men lived in the home at the time — Josh Powell and one of his brothers — raising the specter that someone other than Steve Powell might have recorded the images.
In his opening statement, Pierce County deputy prosecutor Bryce Nelson told the jury that Steve Powell recorded the images for his sexual gratification.
“This case is about a secret,” Nelson said. The neighbor girls and her mother “didn’t know Steve Powell had a secret. But we do.”
Powell faces a standard sentence of around four years if convicted, but the state has alleged aggravating factors that could result in a longer term. The trial is expected to resume next Monday.