Clark County jury convicts adoptive parents of homicide by abuse, murder in Vancouver boy’s starvation death
Defense attorneys moved for mistrial earlier in day after learning of $55M claim on behalf of victim, his brothers
A Clark County jury Friday convicted two adoptive parents of homicide by abuse and second-degree murder in the starvation death of their 15-year-old son — after a chaotic morning in which the defense moved for a mistrial.
The legal motions came in a flurry after attorneys learned of a combined $55 million tort claim filed on behalf of Karreon Franks’ estate and his surviving brothers, now 16 and 17.
Seattle-based Davis Law Group filed the tort claims July 18 against the Washington Department of Health and Social Services and Department of Children, Youth & Families.
The tort claims are seeking $25 million for Karreon’s estate and $15 million each for his brothers.
On Tuesday, Davis Law Group told The Columbian it’s preparing to file a wrongful death lawsuit in the coming weeks in King County Superior Court, assuming the tort claims are rejected.
Neither the prosecution nor the defense knew about the tort claims prior to the criminal trial.
In addition to convicting Felicia L. Adams, 54, and Jesse C. Franks, 58, in Karreon’s death, the jury of seven women and five men found them guilty of two counts of second-degree criminal mistreatment of Karreon’s brothers, then 14 and 13 years old. Jurors also found a number of aggravating factors for each defendant.
The jury deliberated just shy of four hours and reached its verdict at about 4:30 p.m., concluding the two-week trial.
“I’ve always heard about really awful things happening around the world, but this was the first time I was really confronted with it,” juror Tim H. Mousley said outside the Clark County Courthouse.
He said after reviewing the evidence and timeline of Karreon’s demise, “there was no way around it. This happened.”
Mousley questioned the defense’s argument that Karreon’s medical conditions were to blame for his death, stating several doctors testified the boy had no such wasting diseases.
“We took no pleasure in coming to the verdict we did. But like I said, there was no other way around it,” Mousley said.
The couple will be sentenced Nov. 30 in Clark County Superior Court. Prosecutors say Adams and Franks are facing a maximum sentence of life in prison with the aggravating factors.
“We are grateful for the hard work everyone put into this case, and we’re really happy to see justice for these kids,” Senior Deputy Prosecutor Laurel Smith said after the verdict.
Prosecutors said Karreon and his brothers were accustomed to food restriction and corporal punishment in their Vancouver home.
Karreon was severely developmentally delayed and autistic, to the point he was nearly nonverbal. He was also legally blind and used a cane to get around. He further struggled to keep food down, attorneys told the jury.
Smith said she learned of the tort claims Thursday night, after seeing a news article published earlier this week.
Attorneys scrambled during a morning recess to gather more information about the tort claims and whether Karreon’s brothers knew about them prior to testifying in the criminal trial Monday.
“This should not be a surprise in a wrongful death case,” Judge Suzan Clark admonished the attorneys, adding she “really would have liked” them to have done thorough discovery in the case.
“This should have been in the forefront of all of your minds, quite frankly.”
The prosecution gave its closing argument Thursday afternoon, and closings were scheduled to wrap up Friday morning. But before the defense could present its argument, the prosecution raised the tort claim issue.
Defense attorney Jeff Sowder, who represents Adams, first moved for a mistrial and asked if Karreon’s brothers could be brought back in for questioning. Franks’ defense attorney, Alyosha McClain, also moved for a mistrial and asked if jurors could be told the brothers have a financial interest in the outcome of the criminal case.
Prosecutors objected to the proposed jury instruction. After reading a document to the court that indicated the boys may have known about the tort claims, the prosecution asked if the boys could take the stand again for questioning.
The boys’ foster mother, who was watching the trial via Zoom, offered to pick them up from school so they could testify on the issue.
Clark agreed to let the prosecution reopen its case.
Their foster mother said Davis Law Group sent them a letter a few months ago, seeking the boys’ signatures. She said she left the letters on the counter for them to sign, and afterward sent them back to the law firm.
The older surviving brother testified he became aware of the tort claim a few days ago, after his initial testimony in the criminal case. He did not recall signing the document from Davis Law Group. The younger brother testified he remembered signing the document, but he didn’t understand what it was for.
Both testified they didn’t change or fabricate their testimonies to benefit the impending lawsuit.
Clark determined there was no wrongdoing by the prosecution or the defense, but she said all of the attorneys had “dropped the ball.” She denied the motion for a mistrial shortly after 11 a.m., and the defense proceeded with closing arguments.
On Thursday, Smith, the prosecutor, told the jury Karreon lost 47 percent of his body weight between July 2019 and his death on Nov. 27, 2020. His weight dropped from 115 pounds to 61 pounds, which is what he weighed before he was 7 years old. The majority of that time he was isolated at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.
“(Franks) and (Adams) held themselves out to the world as attentive and involved. But behind closed doors and under the convenient cloak that COVID provided, they were able to carry themselves the way they really wanted to,” she said.
She said when Karreon’s brothers were removed from the home the day after his death, they had no strength or stamina to ride their bicycles or go on a hike. But their growth soon skyrocketed.
In addition to food deprivation, Smith spoke of physical abuse Karreon’s brothers endured, including spankings with a paddle, belt and electrical cord. She said the boys were locked inside their bedroom for varying periods of time.
McClain, Franks’ attorney, argued the prosecution’s proposed motive made no sense.
“People don’t adopt a child with special needs, take care of the child for years, for the purpose of obtaining adoption assistance payments, and then kill the child,” he said.
Prosecutors had told the jury the parents received nearly $69,000 a year in adoption assistance for the boys.
He further questioned why Child Protective Services didn’t remove the boys from the home when a social worker visited about a week before Karreon’s death. He said Karreon’s brothers had answered the door, proving they were not locked inside their bedroom.
Sowder, Adams’ attorney, argued if the couple were trying to kill Karreon, they wouldn’t have hired a family member to help care for him.
He, too, pointed to CPS and medical professionals not seeing any red flags in the boys’ care, and he pointed to Karreon’s brothers’ financial interest in the case when referencing their testimony.
The tort claims state agents of DSHS and DCYF should have investigated the situation, discovered the abuse and removed the boys from the home before Karreon died.
Attorney Chris Davis told The Columbian his law firm was contacted by a family member. After looking into the case, he said his law group discovered the agencies had been notified of food deprivation in the home three years before Karreon’s death but did not investigate.
“This particular case is especially egregious, just given the circumstances in how the boy died. The experts we consulted with told us being starved to death is a painful and gruesome way to die; the body literally consumes itself — the organs and tissues — to stay alive until there is heart failure,” Davis said in a phone interview.
In reviewing the case records so far, Davis said “the state has a systemic problem with responding to complaints in a timely fashion and not providing caseworkers with adequate resources to protect kids.”
He argued the caseworkers didn’t receive the training needed to recognize if a child was being starved or if the denial of food was being used as an abuse tactic.
“This boy should be living today, if not for the state dropping the ball in not protecting this kid,” Davis said.
If the impending suit prevails, the parents would usually be entitled to the damages, Davis said. But in this situation, the law would not allow Adams or Franks to recover any money with their conviction, he said.