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TACOMA, Wash. — A lawsuit between the parents of missing Utah woman Susan Powell and the state of Washington’s child welfare agency is back on, with a civil trial restarting today following a months-long delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The jury trial commenced in February and had been underway for more than a month when, on March 17, 2020, Pierce County Superior Court Judge Stanley Rumbaugh placed the proceedings on hold. Since that time, lawyers representing the parents of Susan Cox Powell and the state have repeatedly sparred over the timing of a restart.
Judge Rumbaugh had first proposed restarting the trial in early June, but state attorneys sought an emergency stay from the Washington Supreme Court. Rumbaugh had raised the possibility of a mistrial if the delays persisted.
However, on July 9, the clerk of the Supreme Court announced that the high court had denied review of the matter, clearing the way for the Superior Court to call the jurors back to the courthouse.
Origin of the Susan Powell parents' lawsuit
The lawsuit rose out of the Feb. 5, 2012, murder-suicide involving Susan Cox Powell’s husband, Josh Powell, and their two sons, Charlie and Braden Powell. At the time Josh Powell killed himself and the children, he was the sole suspect in a West Valley City, Utah, police investigation into Susan Powell’s Dec. 7, 2009 disappearance, though police never arrested him, nor did prosecutors charge him with a crime related to that case.
Washington’s child protective services agency had assumed protective custody of the boys following the arrest of their paternal grandfather, Steve Powell, in September of 2011. Weeks earlier, West Valley City police and Pierce County deputies had served a search warrant at the elder Powell’s home and located a cache of voyeur videos. Those included some depicting underage neighbor girls who Steve Powell had surreptitiously filmed through an open bathroom window.
Josh Powell was in the process of attempting to regain custody of his children when, on Feb. 1, 2012, a judge ordered him to undergo a psychosexual evaluation. Days later, during a court-authorized supervised visit at a home Josh Powell had rented in the town of Graham, he slammed the door on a visitation supervisor before attacking the boys with a hatchet and setting the home on fire.
Tangled court history
The pandemic delay proved to be just one more among many stalls in the years-old suit.
Susan Powell’s parents, Chuck and Judy Cox, first filed the lawsuit in Pierce County Superior Court in 2013. It accused Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services, as well as several individual social workers, of negligence for failing to protect Charlie and Braden from their father.
In the years since, the suit has bounced around, entering the federal court system and eventually ending up before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeals court dismissed the individual social workers from the suit, finding they were immune from the claims, but allowed the case against the state agency to proceed. The U.S. District Court subsequently transferred the matter back to Pierce County Superior Court, leading to the trial that is currently underway.
Adapting to the pandemic
The proceedings have a different look than they did in February and March, when spectators packed a cramped courtroom to listen to hours of testimony. In order to mitigate the risk of spreading the coronavirus, the trial has been moved to a larger courtroom where bailiffs can enforce social distancing measures. Several of the remaining witnesses are expected to testify remotely, by way of the video conferencing software Zoom.
Observers are segregated, watching the events via a video link from another room in the courthouse. The court is also providing a public video stream of the trial on YouTube.
For complete background on the Susan Powell case, listen to the KSL Podcasts series COLD.