Utah lawmaker plans murder suspect custody law

2013-06-09T00:04:57Z 2014-03-23T09:53:47Z Utah lawmaker plans murder suspect custody lawThe Associated Press The Associated Press
June 09, 2013 12:04 am  • 

SALT LAKE CITY -- A Utah lawmaker is working on legislation to allow judges to consider removing a child from a parent's custody if that parent is a suspect in their spouse's murder.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said he was asked to run the bill by the family of a Salt Lake City pediatrician charged with killing his ex-wife.

John Brickman Wall was not named a suspect in the murder of his ex-wife, Uta Von Schwedler, until a year and one-half after her body was found, but his three youngest children remained in his custody during that time.

Weiler's proposal is similar to legislation pending in Washington state, which was drafted in response to the case of missing Utah mother Susan Powell.

Josh Powell was the subject of an investigation into his wife's disappearance last year and locked in a custody battle with her parents when he killed himself and the couple's two young boys.

Von Schwedler's family asked Weiler to work on the legislation when he met with them back in March, about a month before Wall was arrested, the senator said.

"They actually handed me a copy of the Washington legislation and said, 'We'd like you to consider doing something like this in Utah' and it just seemed like a good idea," Weiler said Friday.

Von Schwedler, a 49-year-old University of Utah biologist, was found in 2011 in an overflowing bathtub with a knife stuck in her.

Before Wall was arrested in April, the couple's 19-year-old son Pelle Wall petitioned a court to have his younger siblings removed from his father's home.

According to court documents filed last year, Pelle Wall said that when he lived with his father he slept with a pellet gun and a knife because he feared the man.

"To me, it's ludicrous that right now we have children in this state that have to sleep with weapons under their pillows," Weiler told lawmakers during an interim meeting in May. "I believe our justice system is failing them."

Pelle Wall said he was happy to see Weiler's proposal and called it an "important and courageous" effort.

"Had such legal provisions been in place at the time of my mother's death, I would have been saved great heartache, time and effort, not to mention I would not have had to spend my inheritance my mother left me protecting my younger siblings from our father," Wall said in a statement Friday.

Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, told Weiler at the May meeting that he wasn't sure he could support such a measure because police often consider family members suspects when one parent goes missing or there's a suspicious death.

"My concern is that, particularly in the two instances that Sen. Weiler raised, it was a year to two-year investigation of the surviving spouse, and there wasn't sufficient evidence to meet the probable cause standard for making an arrest," Greene told The Associated Press on Friday. "I just think that it's unwise for government to allow the children to be removed from the parent for something less than a probable-cause standard."

For his proposed legislation, Weiler said he's considering having a juvenile court judge hear the custody issues, since those cases are usually closed to the public. That would allow prosecutors to present evidence they might otherwise be reluctant to air before the murder case goes to trial.

Weiler said he thinks the legislation proposed in Washington goes too far because it requires the custody issue to be considered, rather than leaving it up to a judge to decide.

The Washington proposal was approved by the state Senate, but the House has not yet considered the measure. Washington lawmakers are approaching the end of their special legislative session.

Susan's parents, Chuck and Judy Cox, told Washington lawmakers in February that had the legislation been in place, police may have officially named Josh Powell as a suspect in order to protect the Cox's grandchildren.

Utah police never publically identified Josh Powell as a suspect but privately he was the focus of their investigation.

Chuck Cox said Friday that it was possible he and his wife might testify before Utah lawmakers because he wanted to do what he could to support Weiler's proposal.

"We're trying to make it so it takes away the advantage, the incentive," he said. "Then, without cooperating with police, you wouldn't be able to make your spouse disappear and get custody of the kids."

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