Attorneys made opening statements Tuesday in a case brought by the parents of Susan Cox Powell against the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services.
Judith Cox and Charles Cox’s wrongful-death lawsuit against the agency alleges the state didn’t do enough to keep their 7-year-old and 5-year-old grandsons safe from their father, who killed the boys in 2012.
Braden and Charlie Powell were killed by Josh Powell during a supervised visit at his Graham-area rental house.
At the time, Josh Powell was being investigated in the disappearance of his wife, Susan Cox Powell. She went missing from their Utah home in December 2009 and is presumed dead.
An attorney for the Coxes, Ted Buck, told jurors in Pierce County Superior Court that Josh Powell locked the DSHS-contracted visitation supervisor out of his home Feb. 5, 2012, attacked the boys with a hatchet, poured gasoline on them, then set the house on fire. Josh Powell also died.
Buck asked jurors to award $5 million for each minute they find the boys suffered: $35 million on behalf of Braden if they find he suffered seven minutes, and $50 million on behalf of Charlie if they find he suffered for 10.
Lori Nicolavo, an assistant attorney general representing DSHS, told jurors what happened was horrific but suggested the agency did not breach its duty to protect the boys from foreseeable harm.
Nicolavo said state workers on the case had more than 90 years of social work experience combined.
Buck told the jury DSHS owed the boys a trained and capable visitation supervisor and a safe visitation location. The agency met neither obligation that day, he argued, and systemically failed to follow its own guidelines — including by not doing a domestic violence assessment of Josh Powell.
Josh Powell’s home was “a place where he had complete control,” Buck said.
“The fear, the betrayal, the pain, the confusion,” Buck said when describing to the jury the boys’ last minutes there.
He said Powell moved the boys to his father’s Puyallup home after Susan Cox Powell disappeared.
Investigators who searched the Puyallup home for evidence in her disappearance found graphic images, including pornography.
Steven Powell, Josh Powell’s father, later was convicted of voyeurism and child pornography for photos he took of neighbor girls through their bathroom window.
Buck told jurors that the Puyallup home was “a literal house of horrors.”
In addition to graphic images, there was a noose and gallows there, he said.
The boys were taken into protective custody and placed with the Coxes. Josh Powell rented the house in Graham.
He said the visits started at a DSHS facility, but Josh Powell didn’t like that.
Then Feb. 1, 2012, the court denied Powell’s motion for reunification with the boys and ordered him to undergo a psychosexual evaluation and a polygraph.
“To say that the walls were closing in on Josh Powell would be a grievous understatement,” Buck said.
He told the jurors the trial is the last chance the boys will get for justice, and it’s a chance to hold the state accountable.
“You’re it,” Buck said. “Nobody else is going to do it.”
Nicolavo told the jury that there was no prior history of physical abuse of the boys.
She said that certain information from law enforcement was not shared with DSHS, in part due to an order of secrecy entered by a Utah court regarding the investigation of Susan Cox Powell’s disappearance.
Nicolavo also said people overseeing the visitations knew what to do if Powell were to leave with the boys, and they took down his license plate and other vehicle information during the visits.
It’s the court, she argued, that has the authority to limit visitation — Superior Court Judge Kathryn Nelson, in this case.
“She did not limit it, and she had all the information in front of her,” Nicolavo said.
There were 25 visits in four months, including 12 at Powell’s home, which Nicolavo said the state visited beforehand.
He cooked with the boys, built things with them, did homework and played with them during visits, she said.
“He was doing everything that was asked of him,” Nicolavo told the jury. “Maybe putting on a show.”
He’s the one, she suggested, that is responsible for what happened.
The trial is expected to last a month.