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Parents of Susan Powell endure day of graphic court testimony

Attorney Ted Buck delivers opening statements to a jury while standing in front of a large photo print of Braden and Charlie Powell on Feb. 18, 2020.

TACOMA, Wash. — The parents of missing West Valley City mother Susan Powell walked out of a courtroom on Tuesday as one of their attorneys recited a graphic testimony, going blow-by-blow of the deaths of their grandsons.

The dramatic moment came during opening arguments in a long-awaited jury trial between Chuck and Judy Cox, and the state of Washington. Attorney Ted Buck was describing the day on Feb. 5, 2012 that Josh Powell murdered his children, Charlie and Braden Powell and killed himself.

“The fear, the betrayal, the pain, the confusion,” Buck said. “As the house burned, the boys continued to suffer.”

The murder-suicide

Josh Powell was the lone suspect in the disappearance and presumed murder of his wife, Susan Powell, at the time of the murder-suicide. Yet, he had never been arrested or charged with a crime in connection with Susan’s disappearance.

Weeks after Susan Powell’s disappearance on Dec. 7, 2009, Josh Powell relocated from West Valley City, Utah to South Hill, Washington, with the couple’s two sons. At that time he moved in with his father, Steve Powell.

Josh Powell and his sons were still living with Steve Powell when, on Aug. 25, 2011, Pierce County sheriff’s deputies and West Valley City police served a search warrant at the Powell family home. The warrant affidavit made clear they were seeking evidence related to the disappearance of Susan Powell. However, in the process of searching the home they located Steve Powell’s cache of voyeur videos and child pornography.

Deputies arrested Steve Powell less than a month later. At that time, deputies took Charlie and Braden Powell into protective custody. The boys were subsequently placed in the care of the Coxes, though Josh Powell was allowed to have supervised visits with his sons. It was during one of those visits at a home Josh Powell had rented in the community of Graham, Washington, that he took their lives by attacking each in turn with a hatchet before setting fire to the house.

The state, Buck said, had “delivered the boys without precaution to a place where Josh had complete control.”

Opening statements

In court, Buck stood before a large photo of the Powell brothers as he explained to the jury in his testimony why the Coxes believe Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services was negligent in its handling of the dependency case involving Charlie and Braden.

He highlighted three areas of perceived fault: the failure to conduct a domestic violence assessment on Josh Powell, disregarding safety concerns surrounding the supervised visitation at Powell’s home and the handling of court-ordered psychological evaluations of Powell.

Assistant Washington Attorney General Lori Ann Nicolavo pushed back on all three claims during her opening statement to the jury.

“There was no current domestic violence in the home because Josh did not have a domestic partner,” Nicolavo said.

She also told the jurors that social workers were barred from accessing information surrounding the investigation into Susan Powell’s disappearance by a court secrecy order in Utah. Police might have had “gut feelings” or beliefs that Josh Powell would harm the children, but that alone did not give social workers legal authority to prevent Powell from having visitation, Nicolavo said.

“You’ll see who was responsible and I submit to you there’s only one answer,” Nicolavo said. “That answer is Josh Powell.”

The stakes

The lawsuit, which the Coxes originally filed in 2013, could potentially result in a multi-million dollar judgement against the state of Washington. Buck told the jurors witnesses will testify during the weeks-long trial that Charlie and Braden Powell were alive and conscious for several minutes after their father initially attacked and incapacitated them.

Buck told the jury in his testimony against Josh Powell he hoped they would award five million dollars for every minute that each of the boys suffered. He offered a ballpark figure of $85 million.

“That’s the only way that we can hold the state accountable for its complete failure to care for these boys,” Buck said.

The attorneys defending the state did not address damages directly in their opening statements. Nicolavo, the assistant attorney general, instead urged the jurors to keep and open mind, sift through the evidence logically and not allow their opinions to be “clouded by the facts” of the brutal murders.

“When you’re looking at whether or not the department was at fault, test that evidence,” Nicolavo said.