Judge rules Lawrence county boy shot dad's pregnant fiancee
A Lawrence County judge on Friday ruled that a boy fatally shot his father's pregnant fiancee, ending an emotional, three-year case that captured international attention because of the nature of the crime and the killer's age.
Judge John Hodge's ruling that Jordan Brown, 14, is delinquent — the juvenile court equivalent of a guilty verdict in adult court — means the youth will be detained no later than his 21st birthday, but could be released sooner, pending a review every six months.
"I hope he gets the help he needs," said Jack Houk, father of victim Kenzie Marie Houk. "But five, six years -- is that enough time to help the kid• I hope to God it is."
Brown has been in an Erie detention center since shortly after the February 2009 shotgun killing of Kenzie Marie Houk, 26, and her unborn child. Police said Brown, then 11, shot Houk in the head as she lay in bed in the family's New Galilee home, then got on a bus and went to school.
Chris Brown, Jordan's father, left the county courthouse in New Castle without speaking to reporters. Defense attorney Dennis Elisco fought off tears when he spoke.
"It's been 38 months. It's emotional. But the court made its decision," Elisco said.
The Brown family believes Jordan is innocent, he said. Members of Houk's family said they are relieved the case is over.
When the judge ruled, "my heart was beating 100 miles per hour," Jack Houk said. "I laid my head down, grabbed my kid, my daughter, held her hand and said to her, 'This is over.'"
Hodge heard three days of testimony in a juvenile hearing from which the media were barred. He has 20 days to call a hearing to determine where Brown will be housed. Authorities will evaluate Brown every six months during closed juvenile hearings. If a judge decides he has been rehabilitated, he could be released.
The Tribune-Review and other papers fought to open his hearings to the public.
When police initially charged Brown as an adult, he faced life in prison without parole, which would have made him the youngest person in U.S. history to receive such a sentence. His lawyers successfully argued to move the case to juvenile court this year.
Both sides said there were no winners.
"This was not a case where justice was really an available option," said Senior Deputy Attorney General Anthony J. Krastek. "These were completely innocent lives. (Brown) also became a victim because he was not getting the treatment he needed."
The case sparked a conversation about how Pennsylvania treats juveniles accused of serious crimes, said Jeffrey Shook, a professor of social work at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert on the juvenile justice system.
"To make a decision about someone based on an act at the age of 11, there's just so many problems with doing that," Shook said. "This case contributed to the dialogue. When we really begin to think about an 11-year-old being in the criminal justice system and being tried as an adult, it shows the need for a dialogue."
Under state law, anyone 10 or older charged with homicide automatically starts in adult court.
Though the evidence "pretty clearly" pointed to Brown, former District Attorney John Bongivengo, the original prosecutor in the case, said he struggled with the idea that a boy so young could spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted as an adult.
"It took its toll physically and emotionally," said Bongivengo, who lost re-election in 2009. "I didn't feel bad when it wasn't my case anymore. The thing that bugged me was people would say, 'How can you charge an 11-year-old as an adult• It's cruel and unusual punishment.' Well, you're talking to the wrong guy. Call up your legislator."
The slayings will scar Lawrence County forever, he said.
"Whenever a case like this comes up somewhere else, we'll come up, too," Bongivengo said.
"The Jordan Brown case really changed my perspective on a lot of things," he added. "When I started, I was really prosecutorial-oriented. I was pretty strongly in favor of the death penalty because of some of the things I'd seen. I don't see it that way anymore. There's a lot more gray than I originally thought."
Before Hodge announced his ruling, friends and family gathered outside the county courthouse, most filing in solemnly and without comment.
Some of Houk's supporters, including Kenzie's parents, formed a circle in the courtyard in front of the building and prayed.
"We know you are a just God," Pastor Garod Mills said. "Help us. Help us all."
Armed guards were stationed outside and throughout the inside of the courthouse, in case emotions ran high. When Hodge issued his decision, bailiffs quickly took Brown from the courtroom.
Brown has grown more than a foot since his arrest and is about 6 feet tall. At his first hearing, he was less than 5 feet tall, and his shackled ankles dangled above the ground as he sat in a courtroom chair next to Elisco.