Jury: Washington state liable in Powell boys' deaths

TACOMA, Wash. (AP) — A jury has found that Washington state officials were partially responsible for the deaths of missing Utah woman Susan Cox Powell's children at the hands of their father.

The News Tribune newspaper in Tacoma reported that jurors on Friday awarded $98 million to the estates of Charlie and Braden Powell.

Josh Powell was a suspect in the presumed killing of his wife in 2009 and living in Pierce County, Washington, in 2012, when he killed their two young sons Charlie and Braden and himself in an explosive house fire. The boys were visiting Josh Powell at his home on a supervised visit with a social worker when they were killed; Powell had locked the social worker outside.

Susan Powell's parents, Judith and Charles Cox, alleged in a wrongful death lawsuit that Washington's Department of Social and Health Services did not do enough to keep their 7- and 5-year-old grandsons, Braden and Charlie, safe. The Coxes were in a custody fight for the boys when Josh Powell killed them; they are seeking tens of millions of dollars.

The trial started in Pierce County Superior Court in February and was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Jurors had begun deliberating Thursday.

Ted Buck, an attorney for the Coxes, argued during closing arguments on Wednesday that state workers weren't properly trained on policy regarding parental visits in domestic violence situations.

He said “none of this would have happened” had state policies and common sense been followed, pointing to a social worker who recognized Josh Powell as an abduction risk without informing the judge overseeing the custody dispute.

Assistant attorney general Joseph Diaz said in his closing argument the boys' deaths were unquestionably tragic, but that experienced state workers took the custody matter very seriously. He said the department tried "to do what’s best for both those boys, at the same time recognizing that Mr. Powell had rights.”

“Mr. Powell is the sole cause of the murder of his sons," Diaz told the jury. "There was not any negligence by the state of Washington.”

Josh Powell had moved to Puyallup, to his father Steven's home, with the boys following his wife's disappearance. But investigators looking for clues to her whereabouts searched that house and found child pornography, including images that Steven Powell had secretly recorded of neighbor girls.

The boys were then removed from the home and placed with the Coxes. Josh Powell moved to a house in Graham. When the boys arrived for the visit with the social worker, he locked the social worker out, attacked the boys with a hatched and then blew up the home with the three of them inside.