SHOULD JOSH POWELL HAVE BEEN CHARGED WITH THE MURDER OF HIS WIFE SUSAN POWELL BASED ON CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE WITH NO BODY?
Susan Powell went missing from her home in West Valley City, Utah in December 2009. Her husband, Josh Powell, from almost the very start, was the primary suspect; they had two sons named Charlie and Braden. Police focused on Josh’s brother, Michael Powell, and father, Steve Powell. Michael had abandoned a car believed to be involved in the crime at a junkyard 200 miles from Salem, Oregon. By the time police discovered this information (about two years after the disappearance), the DNA evidence extracted from the vehicle’s upholstery was not relevant to the case. Michael had been made the beneficiary of a life insurance policy taken out by Josh on Susan’s life worth approximately $1.5 million four months before Josh killed himself and two sons in a house fire in Pierce County, Washington. Michael C. Powell (30) jumped to his death from a Minneapolis, Minnesota parking garage on February 12th, 2013. Early on police had found two drops of blood matched to Susan (and a fan blowing on the spot where the drops were seen) on a damp carpet in her house, however, without additional scientific evidence, police were reluctant to do much with this evidence. Steve was obsessed with Susan claiming the two were in love; he was later imprisoned for taking photos of minors and related matters. Although the police believed the three were involved, they had no direct evidence or scientific evidence to support their suspicions.
After over three years of searching through tens of thousands of documents, photographs, videos, phone messages, interview notes, and other information, the West Valley City Police Department closed the case. The body was never found, and the police were left with mostly circumstantial evidence. Josh had Susan’s phone after she was missing and couldn’t explain why; he removed the SIM card; he hadn’t called in to work to report that he was not coming in the Monday following the disappearance; he rented a car and drove over 800 miles shortly after the disappearance and didn’t explain why; he wouldn’t cooperate with the police even before he retained a lawyer; he was super-controlling over Susan and likely abused her although there were no official police reports supporting this claim; he killed himself and children; Mark killed himself and knew he was a suspect in the murder. There were many other examples of similar odd behavior on the part of all three of these men. Josh obtained a significant insurance policy on Susan and made himself the beneficiary before making his brother the primary beneficiary. The murder as of this date has not been solved.
COMMENT: The law makes no distinction between the weight or value to be given between circumstantial evidence and other types of evidence- they are all equally important. The jury is left to decide the relevance and weight of the evidence. An example of Circumstantial evidence is: You go to sleep at night, the grass is green; you wake up, the grass is now white and covered with snow. You didn’t see it snow, but the circumstances strongly prove that it did. Direct evidence would consist of actually seeing it snow on the grass. Scientific evidence could include DNA evidence. In the case above, the prosecutor could have charged Josh Powell and relied upon circumstantial evidence. It is unclear what evidentiary value the blood drops could have had though. His silence and decision not to cooperate could have been attributed to his lawyer – moreover, it seems unlikely that the court would have permitted the state to comment on his decision to invoke his silence. The interactions between his brother and father does not seem to establish much other than suspicion- a level of proof far below the standard of reasonable doubt. The absence of a body seemed less problematic for the prosecutor. Some statistics show that since 1843, about 400 murder cases have been prosecuted without a body with an approximate 89% conviction rate. This statistic notwithstanding, it appears that there was insufficient evidence to charge Josh with the murder. In the event the body is found, additional forensic evidence may come to light.