When Rotterdam native Mary Ann Powell went missing from her Halfmoon apartment in October 1994, investigators quickly zeroed in on an explanation to the exclusion of others: She was dead and her husband had killed her, a defense attorney said Thursday morning.
Prosecutors in the murder trial of former Schenectady resident Warren Powell, however, argued that the jury could come up with no other conclusion than Warren Powell used a rope to strangle his wife and then dumped her body in the Hudson River.
Powell, now 38, is on trial this week in Columbia County Court on a charge of second-degree murder, accused of killing his 21-year-old pregnant wife. It is his long-awaited second trial. He was convicted in the killing in 1997, but that conviction was later overturned on appeal.
Mary Ann Powell’s decomposed body wasn’t discovered until 1996, in the river in Columbia County. She was six months pregnant when she died.
Powell has since been in prison on unrelated drug convictions.
He is being represented in court by Albany attorney Steve Coffey, who argued in his opening statement Thursday that state police came to their conclusions and then worked to back them up.
“They see one person and everything else falls by the wayside,” Coffey said. “They became convinced in October that Warren Powell killed his wife, they were absolutely certain of that and they did things in furtherance of that.”
But prosecutor H. Neal Conolly went through several statements Powell gave to investigators that he said were misleading.
When investigators first questioned Powell, he told of an argument he had with his wife and then spoke of going alone to Columbia County to visit his parents and grandparents that day.
He made no mention of the boat he bought that afternoon in Columbia County or the trailer hitch ball he purchased, Conolly said.
When confronted with that information, Powell then explained that his wife had been with him. The boat sellers, however, will testify that Warren Powell was alone, Conolly said.
“He tried to deceive. He tried to mislead,” Conolly said. “We will show that the evidence matches up and that it was Warren Powell who committed the murder.”
Both sides noted the 15 years that have passed since the crime. Some witnesses, they noted, have since died. In those cases, testimony from the first trial will be read into the record.
They also told the jury not to be surprised if witnesses have trouble remembering and need prior statements or testimony to refresh their memory.
The passage of time could also be seen on Powell himself. He has spent the past decade in state prison on Schenectady-based drug convictions. His hair is gray now. He is scheduled for his first parole hearing on his 15-to-30-year drug sentence in September 2011.
In the murder case, the prosecution will use former Halfmoon neighbors to pinpoint the last time Mary Ann Powell was seen and to corroborate that an argument took place.
Coffey, however, attempted to use those prosecution witnesses to show holes in the case. One neighbor saw Mary Ann Powell get the mail at 11:30 a.m. that day, and another heard an argument between the two through the apartment wall.
Coffey argued that if the prosecution is correct, somebody would have heard a struggle or seen Warren Powell remove a body. No one did.
When Warren Powell purchased the boat, he also asked to borrow the trailer license plates. He returned the plates later that evening, giving investigators another benchmark for their timeline.
Coffey suggested that his client couldn’t have committed the act, bought the boat, dumped the body and returned the plates in the time allotted. Investigators didn’t check the timeline themselves, Coffey said.
Investigators pieced together a case based on physical evidence. The most significant was the boat that Warren Powell purchased on Oct. 1, 1994, the day his wife was last seen.
A professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy performed a computer analysis that matched the pattern of grooves on the bottom of the hockey bag in which the victim’s body was placed with scuff marks found on the seat of the boat. The bag also matched one that disappeared from a storage building at a home across the street from Powell’s parents’ house in Valatie.
Coffey argued that the scratches on the boat weren’t discovered until after the body and hockey bag were found. The boat had been in police custody since the month after Mary Ann Powell disappeared. Photos were also taken then but didn’t note the scratches, Coffey said.
Hikers on May 25, 1996, found the bag containing Mary Ann Powell’s remains in the river about eight miles from the home of Warren Powell’s parents.