Murder retrial starts in case of man charged with killing his wife

HUDSON—It has taken 5 years, but the retrial of Warren Powell for the strangling his pregnant wife 15 years ago finally got started in Columbia County Court last week.
     Mr. Powell, 38, is originally from Valatie, but was living in Halfmoon, Saratoga County, at the time of the crime. He is charged with second degree murder, a class A-1 felony. The indictment alleges that on or about October 1, 1994, Mr. Powell caused the death of his wife, Mary Ann (Tasick) Powell, 21, who was six-months pregnant.
     Officials do not know exactly when or where she was killed, but Mrs. Powell’s decomposing remains were discovered in the Hudson River by campers as they hiked along the shore line, near Gay’s Point in Stockport, May 25, 1996, Memorial Day weekend. Her body was tied up and stuffed in a hockey bag weighted down with rocks. She had apparently been strangled.
     Mr. Powell was found guilty of the murder in August 1997, but won an appeal of that conviction from the state Supreme Court Appellate Division in 2004. From before the time of his murder conviction until the present Mr. Powell has remained an inmate in state prison, serving a 15- to 30-year sentence on drug sales convictions unrelated to the murder case.
     The retrial was delayed by a number of factors, including the finding in 2006 that Mr. Powell was mentally incompetent to stand trial. He has also changed lawyers at least three times. But on Wednesday, April 1, a jury of five men, seven women and three alternates was seated to hear the case, with County Court Judge Jonathan Nichols presiding.
     Opening statements were delivered the morning of April 2, with Assistant District Attorney H. Neal Conolly vowing to prove that Mrs. Powell was last seen alive Saturday, October 1, 1994 and that Mr. Powell was the last person to see her. Mr. Conolly said that Mr. Powell “took active steps” in his plan to dispose of her body, that he “secreted his activities… lied, deceived and mislead” authorities and his in-laws about his involvement in his wife’s disappearance.
     The prosecutor recounted the couples’ escalating argument that morning over the number of cats they had in their one-bedroom apartment, a speeding ticket received by Mr. Powell and the amount of time Mr. Powell spent away from home. Though he initially recalled the argument as being the “worst they ever had,” Mr. Conolly said Mr. Powell later “downplayed its significance.”
     After leaving the apartment around 1 p.m. October 1, Mr. Powell bought a boat and a trailer hitch, facts he did not mention during his subsequent statements to authorities. When Mr. Powell returned to the apartment at 8 p.m. that evening, he has said that his wife was not there. The prosecutor said it wasn’t until Tuesday, October 4, at the insistence of his in-laws, that Mr. Powell reported to the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office that his wife was missing.
     Mr. Conolly told the jury he was confident that when they heard all the proof they would find Mr. Powell guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
     In his opening statement, defense attorney Stephen Coffey said that like the late news commentator Paul Harvey, he would tell “the rest of the story.” He said that if, as the prosecution claims, Mr. Powell had killed his wife in a fit of rage during their argument and disposed of her body that same day, he would have had to carry her out during the daytime and put her in the back of his pickup truck in full view of his neighbors in the apartment complex.
    Mr. Powell loved his wife, Mr. Coffey said. They had no financial problems, there was no other woman. “Why would he kill her in such a violent and subhuman way and take the life of his unborn child?” asked the defense counsel.
     Mr. Coffey also questioned how Mr. Powell could have driven around all afternoon with his wife’s body in the back of the truck, purchased the boat between 6 and 6:30 p.m. then taken it out in the fast-moving Hudson River in the dark without lights and dumped his wife’s body all by himself. The defense attorney said that the hockey bag with the body and the rocks weighed 190 pounds, while Mr. Powell weighed 180 pounds.
     Mr. Coffey also challenged the performance of the police agencies in Saratoga County that investigated the crime, citing officers’ failure to take notes or record their interviews with Mr. Powell, although the officers later testified that Mr. Powell had made incriminating statements to them.
     The defense attorney suggested that after the body was found and police decided Mr. Powell was the primary suspect the agencies altered the evidence, in particular the boat, to make it look like the hockey bag containing the body had been dragged across the seats of the boat.
     Mr. Coffey told the jurors that by the end of the case they will have seen things no one else has seen and heard evidence no one else had heard and that they would doubt that Mr. Powell could have committed the crime.
     During testimony that afternoon, Walter Wernhammer of Cairo told the court about finding the body as he and his wife walked from their campsite at Gay’s Point.
     Patricia DeMio, a neighbor of the Powell’s at the Nomacher Apartments in Halfmoon, said she heard the couple arguing the morning of October 1, 1994 and later saw Mrs. Powell getting the mail around 11:30 a.m., but did not see her again.
     Barbara Tasick, Mary Ann Powell’s mother, testified about going with her daughter for a pre-natal checkup September 23, 1994, during which an ultrasound revealed that Mrs. Powell was expecting a son.
     Her daughter Mary Ann and her husband, Warren, had come to the Tasicks’ home September 25, 1994 for Sunday dinner and that was the last time she saw her daughter alive, Mrs. Tasick told the court. Her voice became choked with emotion as she recounted the visit Mr. Powell paid her and her husband Monday, October 3, 1994 to tell them Mary Ann had disappeared two days earlier.
     Though she and Mr. Tasick made phone calls to Mary Ann’s friends and local hospitals to try to find her, Mrs. Tasick recalled that Mr. Powell made no calls to try to locate his wife.
     The Tasicks had a strained relationship with Mr. Powell. They disapproved of their daughter’s marriage to him and did not attend the wedding. They did not want to attend, nor did Mr. Powell want them there, she testified.
     It was the Tasicks who insisted that Mr. Powell go with them to the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office substation at the Clifton Country Mall to report their daughter missing Tuesday, October 4, 1994. The Tasicks had gone to the Powells’ apartment earlier that afternoon and found none of their daughter’s belongings missing.
     While at the apartment, Mrs. Tasick said Mr. Powell told her that her daughter was never coming back.
     During cross-examination by Mr. Coffey, Mrs. Tasick, a teachers’ aide, admitted to asking the police to let her tape record her conversations with Mr. Powell twice in an effort to get him to tell her where her daughter was. She said she was “desperate.”
     “They said I should not do it, it was too dangerous, but I wanted to do it and they let me,” said Mrs. Tasick.
     During the taped conversations Mrs. Tasick said she was not able to elicit any information from Mr. Powell about his involvement with her daughter’s disappearance or where she was.

To contact reporter Diane Valden email .  

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