That secret is that Steven Powell is a voyeur. The evidence will show that. —Bryce Nelson, deputy Pierce County attorney

TACOMA, Wash. — Despite all the talk about Susan Cox Powell and Josh Powell, the trial of Steven Powell is really about two young girls.

Wednesday, those girls had their day in court, speaking publicly for the first time about having their privacy violated. Prosecutors say it was their former next-door neighbor Steven Powell who videotaped and took photographs of them from his house — just 40 to 50 feet away — by looking into their bathroom through an open door.

The girls, identified in court only as JH and her older sister AH, were visibly nervous as they took the witness stand and told the jury that they did not give anyone permission to take pictures of them inside their home.

Their mother, identified only as DC to also protect her privacy, was able to mostly stay strong while on the witness stand. But then she was shown the photographs that prompted investigators to file 14 counts of voyeurism against Powell. At that point, she fought back tears.

"She was very emotional. She was somebody who is protective of her kids. But that was a raw emotional moment when she looked at those pictures. She lost it, and it was hard for her to recover. She saw her girls and what he did to them," the girls' attorney, Anne Bremner, said.

Bremner believes it was the first time the mother had seen those photos. It has only been within the last couple of months that DC told her daughters they were victims in the voyeurism case because she wanted to protect them.

The emotional testimonies of the mother and her two daughters capped off the first week of the Powell trial. Because of a scheduling conflict, the trial will not resume until Monday.

Powell is accused of taking thousands of pictures of the two girls when they were neighbors starting in 2006. The girls were 8 and 10 at the time. They are now 13 and 15 years old.

To the majority of people, the photos would not be provocative. They were images of the two girls doing everyday routine things in the bathroom like dressing, undressing, taking a bath, washing their hair and drying off.

But to Powell, 62, they filled his voyeuristic habits and he used these photos for sexual stimulation, prosecutors argued.

"I was so proud of those girls. They were really brave. And the fact that he was in the courtroom with them, and he knew we were all there and I know he's not liking it, and that's what makes it all the way worth it," Denise Cox, sister of Susan Powell, said after the hearing.

The girls testified about moving into the house next to the Powells. JH said she wanted to keep the bathroom door open when she was in there because "back then I was scared to be alone so I always kept the door open."

But the girls said they, in general, believed they were safe in their own home and no one could violate them. They said they assumed they had privacy in their bathroom.

In the summer, DC said the upstairs got very warm because there was no air conditioning in the house, so the family would leave the windows open at night to let in the cool air.

Prosecutors also pointed out to jurors that it was impossible to see into the girls' bathroom from the sidewalk. The only way those pictures could have been taken was from the Powell house, the state argued.

Despite being neighbors, the young girls and their mother hardly knew the Powell family. DC said she didn't think she even knew Steven Powell's name. Neither of the girls could identify Powell, who was sitting in the courtroom next to his attorneys. Powell rarely looked at the girls while they were on the witness stand.

Bremner believes the fact that neither girl could identify Powell in court only strengthens the voyeurism case against Powell.

"It makes it even creepier that they don't know who he is," she said.

Bremner described the two girls as "powerful witnesses," even though they were nervous and their testimonies were short.

"To be able to get up in front of the courtroom, in front of a lot of press, even though they weren't photographed or recorded, but to be able to get up and be able to talk about that, I thought was really brave. And I thought they were very compelling. And the most compelling thing was ... those images," she said.

The defense did not cross-examine the young girls.

DC said the first she had heard about what had happened to her and her daughters was when police were able to track her down in 2011. The family moved away from Powell's neighborhood several years ago. DC came home from picking up her kids from school one day and an officer was waiting in their driveway.

"He explained to me that when we lived at our rental house that our neighbor had been taking photos of us," she testified.

Prior to taking the stand, Judge Ronald Culpepper asked DC if either she or her daughters wanted to give the media permission to take their pictures in the courtroom.

"I think we're all kind of leery of being photographed at this point," she quipped.

In their opening arguments Wednesday, prosecutors told the jury this was a case about a secret that was kept for five years.

"That secret is that Steven Powell is a voyeur," deputy Pierce County attorney Bryce Nelson said. "The evidence will show that.

Nelson called Powell a person who "had been invading the privacy of (two) girls during their most intimate moments."

But defense attorney Mark Quigley countered in his opening arguments that the case was not about "credibility of witnesses," but rather the "sufficiency of the evidence."

"I'm confident at that time, you'll find the evidence not sufficient," he told jurors.

During his cross-examination of DC and the first witness, Pierce County sheriff's detective Gary Sanders, Quigley tried to establish that there were other people living in the Powell house at the time and that no one could positively identify his client as the person who took the photos. Quigley tried to raise doubts about whether it could be proven that the disc of digital images found in Powell's bedroom belonged to him.

Sanders earlier had showed the jury thousands of images of AH and JH taken from Powell's home. The jurors sat mostly expressionless as Sanders scrolled through all of the pictures, occasionally stopping to point out that many of the photos were focused on the girls' chests and other body parts.

Likewise, Powell did not have any expression as he sat next to his attorneys watching the images. The photos were found on a disc that had sub-folders with the titles, "taking bath-1," "taking bath-2" and "open window back of house."

Before the jury was brought into the courtroom for the day, Culpepper all but eliminated Susan Powell from the trial.

Prosecutors had wanted to present other photos to the jury they say were found on Steven Powell's disc, including some partially nude photos of Susan. Culpepper ruled the detective could talk about folders that were labeled "neighbors," "Cindy," "Cindy's sister," among others. But he would not allow a folder with images of Susan Powell or graphically sexual images of Steven Powell posing with photos of Susan Powell.

The judge made a similar ruling Tuesday when he declined to allow many journal entries Powell had written about his obsession over Susan. The journals included bizarre statements concerning his feelings and fantasies about her.

Culpepper said the photos and the journal entries only proved Powell's obsession with his daughter-in-law and not a pattern of voyeurism.

Following the judge's ruling Tuesday, a visibly upset Denise Cox left the courthouse without speaking to reporters.

"I was really upset yesterday," Cox admitted Wednesday. "But things are looking up a lot better."

Cox said she believed a lot of good evidence was presented Wednesday against Steven Powell. Although her sister is being kept out of this trial, Cox hopes that Powell will someday face charges for the voyeuristic photos he allegedly took of Susan.

"But that's really hard right now with her not even being around and not knowing what happened to her. I'm hoping in the future there will be charges. I don't believe this is the end of the charges for him," she said. "I believe he'll be in court again for more charges, one of them will be for my sister."

Other images found on the disc that will be allowed in the trial include pictures of young girls walking in the street or standing in front of their homes. The pictures appear to have been taken from inside Powell's home and without the knowledge of the girls. Many of the photos focus on the girls' legs, chests and buttocks.

Several photos show a teen girl in her bedroom changing her clothes. Police said they were also able to identify that victim.

Another set of folders had a sexually graphic title, but Culpepper noted it was just pictures of a girl sitting in a minivan scratching her leg. Culpepper allowed the folder because the graphic title spoke to Powell's mindset and the charges against him.

Culpepper also allowed some of the pictures Steven Powell took of himself. In some of them, he is in his underwear, in some he is naked and in some he is "engaged in various private acts."

The state wants to show the images to show jurors Powell engaged in a pattern of taking such photos. Establishing that pattern would bolster their argument that the photos of the young neighbor girls could only have been taken by Powell.

Each of Powell's 14 counts of voyeurism carries a possible sentence of up to five years if convicted.

The trial comes nearly nine months after police searched the home of Steven and Josh Powell looking for evidence in connection with the disappearance of Utah mother Susan Powell. What they found were thousands of digital images of girls and women. Many of the photos were of Susan Powell, others were of other random women apparently taken throughout the Seattle and Tacoma areas without their knowledge.

Witnesses from Utah — including members of the West Valley Police Department and Powell's estranged daughter Jennifer Graves — are scheduled to take the witness stand on Monday. The case is expected to go to the jury by Tuesday.

E-mail: preavy@desnews.com

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