Proposed bill prompted by Powell case and S.L. homicide

Published: Thursday, June 6 2013 7:05 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah lawmaker is eyeing legislation that would give a judge the ability to revoke child custody and restrict visitation in cases where a parent is suspected of murdering a spouse.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said he was approached by the family of University of Utah scientist Uta von Schwedler, who was found dead in her bathtub in September of 2011.

After police said they discovered evidence that included some DNA material from ex-husband John Brickman Wall in and around the crime scene, Wall was arrested in April on a warrant charging him with murder in his ex-wife's death. The arrest occurred while he was on his way to work.

“They made sure that my dad was removed from the children, physically away from them, and were super careful to avoid another Josh Powell situation,” Pelle Wall, the couple’s 19-year-old son, told the Deseret News Thursday.

Wall said such worries had consumed him for some time, as he fought to have his siblings removed from his father's custody.

“Incredibly worried,” Wall said of the prospects of his younger siblings continuing to live with their dad. “Worried enough to spend tens of thousands of dollars, hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to seek safety.”

Powell murdered his two sons then killed himself in a fire in Graham, Wash., in 2012. Police suspect Powell killed his missing wife, Susan Powell, who disappeared in December of 2009. But Josh Powell was never charged in her disappearance.

“When you’ve had two cases so close, you know, I think it’s time for us to give this a serious look,” Weiler said.

Weiler’s proposal is only in the conceptual stage, although it was discussed during an interim committee meeting on Utah’s Capitol Hill earlier this month. He said it will get more study and he plans to formally introduce a bill next February.

The proposed law will be similar to a bill currently before the Washington Legislature that would prevent the awarding of child custody to parents suspected in murder cases.

“That law would automatically remove (the children),” Weiler said. “I want a judge to decide.”

Weiler has already seen some early opposition from a couple of fellow Republicans and said the measure potentially faces an “uphill battle.” Still, he believes the climate is such that some measure could be passed.

Some attorneys are also raising questions about how the bill may be constructed.

“How does a judge review evidence that a policeman hasn’t taken to a prosecutor yet?” questioned defense attorney Kent Morgan, who was a prosecutor for many years. “Maybe the police don’t want that evidence to be exposed to the public at this point.”

Morgan acknowledged some discovery may be needed and suggested that if details of a police investigation were not released to others, that could fuel more concerns.

“I think if somebody was trying to take my young, dependent children away, and said, 'I’m not going to tell you why,' I think I’d be furious.”

Morgan said he’d be more comfortable with a measure that requires a probable cause determination.

“What procedures might be available, what appeals might be available, what happens to the kids while you’re making this decision — all of those matters are something that would have to be flushed out in such legislation,” Morgan said.

Email: aadams@deseretnews.com

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