Lawrence County legal case continues to unfold seven years later as teen is released from juvenile center purview
by Karen Kane, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
June 19, 2016
Christopher Brown told his 11-year-old son, Jordan, not to worry as he was put into the back of a state police cruiser and taken to the Lawrence County Jail. Stay strong. You’ll be coming home soon.
“Soon” turned out to be seven years. And counting.
Last Monday, Jordan—now 18 years old—was released from the custody of the juvenile court system. Sort of.
Lawrence County Judge John Hodge ruled that Jordan, who had graduated with honors from a Crawford County high school June 10, could be released from George Junior Republic, a juvenile detention facility in Mercer. Under state law, Jordan could have been held in confinement until he turned 21, having been judged responsible for the 2009 murder of his dad’s fiancee and her unborn son. But, all parties—prosecutors, defense attorneys, and juvenile probation—agreed he had met expectations of juvenile court and should be released.
However, there were conditions: He must meet with juvenile probation and the court periodically; he can go to college but he’s required to live on campus; and he’s not allowed to live with his father, even though his father intends to make his home near that college campus in Erie.
“They stole his childhood from him. They stole his childhood from me. And it just doesn’t end. The hell just goes on and on and on,” said Mr. Brown.
It started on a Friday, Feb. 20, 2009, when 26-year-old Kenzie Marie Houk—nine months pregnant and weeks from delivering her first son—took a single shotgun blast to the back of her head as she slept. Her body was found by her 4-year-old daughter in their farmhouse near New Castle, a home she made with her fiance, Mr. Brown, his son, Jordan, and her daughters, Adalynn, 4, and Jenessa, 7.
At about 2 am the next day, 11-year-old Jordan was awakened by state police troopers and was arrested for homicide. The fifth-grader suddenly had joined one of America’s most exclusive clubs: pre-teen defendants accused of the most serious of crimes.
Because Pennsylvania law requires children as young as 10 to be treated as adult defendants if they are accused in a killing, Jordan was charged as an adult and incarcerated at the Lawrence County Jail. He was given a standard-issue jail jumpsuit. It didn’t fit. Nothing about the situation did.
A flummoxed jail warden pleaded for the child to be moved, but where would he go? These were muddy waters: A juvenile detention center isn’t supposed to take adults and, for legal purposes, Jordan was considered an adult. Even Jordan’s prosecutor—Lawrence County District Attorney John Bongivengo, who was convinced of Jordan’s “guilt”—said he was physically sickened and sleepless over the inadequacy of the system to deal with such a young defendant.
Officials secured a temporary spot at the now defunct Allencrest Center in Beaver County. Within a week, Jordan was moved again, this time more than 100 miles away, to the Edmund L. Thomas Adolescent Detention Center in Erie, a facility designed to be “transitional” for youths.
Though the average stay for residents at “Edmund L.” was three weeks, Jordan was there for three years. Again, he was treading in more muddy water. Because Jordan denied responsibility for killing Kenzie Houk—he still does—prosecutors argued that he wouldn’t be a good candidate for rehabilitation, which is the main thrust of the juvenile court system. They argued if he wasn’t amenable to rehabilitation, then he should be processed through the adult court system where, if found guilty, he would have faced mandatory life in prison—and would have been the youngest “lifer” in America.
His pro-bono defense team, Dennis Elisco of Lawrence County and Steve Colafella of Beaver County, argued that requiring Jordan to admit guilt to gain decertification was a violation of his constitutional right against self-incrimination. The state’s Superior Court set precedent in March 2011 by determining Jordan need not admit guilt to be adjudicated as a juvenile.
An adjudication hearing was set for April 2012, three years after Jordan’s arrest. In a closed-door proceeding, Judge Hodge adjudicated Jordan delinquent of first-degree murder and criminal homicide.
A year later, the state Superior Court determined that Judge Hodge had inadequate evidence to support a guilty verdict. The prosecution appealed to the state Supreme Court, which also ruled in Jordan’s favor. Jordan’s case was returned to Judge Hodge for consideration of a new trial, but the judge denied the request. That decision is on appeal again before state Superior Court.
Much of what has transpired the past seven years for Jordan and his family has been hidden from public view because of his age. When Jordan’s case was “decertified” and he ultimately was deemed a juvenile, his case shifted from the public realm of adult court to the confidential confines of juvenile court. Unlike adult court proceedings, most juvenile proceedings are closed. The news media, including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, sought unsuccessfully to have Jordan’s hearings opened to the public.
From its start, Jordan’s case garnered worldwide headlines and opinion pieces arguing for changes in the law. It has set court precedent and provoked the ire of juvenile justice advocates. It has focused attention on a judicial and penal system as ill-fitting for a child as the orange jumpsuit Jordan was required to wear in the Lawrence County lockup.
Defense attorney Patrick Thomassey, who has represented a number of juveniles in high-profile cases—including Alex Hribal, who is accused of using a knife to cut or stab 19 students and a security guard at Franklin Regional High School—said there needs to be a blended system.
“It’s stupid what we’re doing,” Mr. Thomassey said.
Because in juvenile court, the system loses jurisdiction when the offender reaches age 21, there is tremendous pressure placed on the judge to keep a case in adult court, he said.
He, like many others in the criminal justice field, suggests a blended system, where when the offender ages out of juvenile jurisdiction, he or she moves into an adult prison, where jurisdiction could continue for five years or more.
To accomplish that change, though, Mr. Thomassey said that prosecutors would have to lobby the Legislature.
“They can get it done if they want to,” he said.
A father’s lament
Christopher Brown, who works as a guard at the state prison in Mercer, consented to speak last week about his son’s case, which continues to unfold.
He said his attorneys believe the appeal pending before Superior Court could vacate the delinquency/guilty verdict against Jordan. In an earlier decision, the same appeals court had ruled there hadn’t been enough evidence against Jordan.
“I know he didn’t do it. He says he didn’t do it. He’s always said he didn’t do it. You have a kid who was wrongfully accused at the age of 11 and has sat through the system, which is a totally messed up system for seven years, shuffled around. And if we get good news in a couple of weeks that he’s acquitted, that’ll be great but it’ll also prove that we were robbed of Jordan’s childhood for no reason,” Mr. Brown said.
He described shock and frustration of the past seven years starting with Jordan’s arrest. “About a six state troopers showed up and said Jordan was being arrested. They put him in handcuffs. They put him in the cruiser. I wasn’t allowed to ride with him. I had to just follow behind,” he recounted.
Within hours he was in the Lawrence County Jail.
He said he remembers looking into the boy’s face and seeing “fear, confusion and sadness.”
Then came the move to a Beaver County juvenile detention center, then Erie, where he remained for three years. During that period, attorneys argued over whether Jordan should be tried as an adult or as a juvenile. The stakes were high. If convicted in juvenile court, he could be confined until he was 21. If found guilty as an adult, he faced mandatory life in jail.
Mr. Brown said he was astounded by the crux of the dispute: Jordan’s consistent denial that he killed Ms. Houk. “They said he wasn’t a good candidate for rehabilitation as a juvenile because he wouldn’t accept responsibility for what he did. Well, he didn’t do it and he didn’t want to say he did it. But, we both realized that if he would have just told them what they wanted to hear, he would have been decertified [and tried as a juvenile] and be placed in treatment and been home in a year and a half.”
He said he and his extended family would tell Jordan to “hang tough, be strong” but he said he was battling a sense of “helplessness that was overwhelming.”
It took about three years but the courts decided that Jordan need not admit responsibility for the killings to be decertified and tried as a juvenile. A juvenile hearing followed that decision. Jordan was found delinquent.
After the finding of delinquency, he was moved to a facility in Chambersburg then to George Junior Republic. Entering as a freshman, he stayed until his senior year where he was so successful academically, behavioraly and socially, that he was allowed to move off campus last fall to a group home in Crawford County that was overseen by George Junior. There, he attended Maplewood High School where he played both football and basketball, and graduated at the top of his class with a near perfect QPA, his dad said.
Mr. Brown said Judge Hodge has ruled Jordan may not live with his father. Instead, he will live with his father’s aunt and uncle in Boardman, Ohio. Mr. Brown said he yearns to share his home with his son before Jordan leaves for college at a university in Erie in the fall.
Mr. Brown, said the uncertainty of his son’s life has created uncertainty in his own life.
“We’ve both had to learn to expect the unexpected, not to get our hopes too high,” he said. “And that’s a hard way to live.”
What about Kenzie?
Debbie Houk deliberately did not attend the hearing last week in the Lawrence County courthouse, when a judge ruled that Jordan Brown could be released from a juvenile detention center after being found responsible for slaying Mrs. Houk’s daughter, Kenzie, and her unborn son.
Mrs. Houk, 62, of Shenango, didn’t go inside last week because she said she “couldn’t stand to hear anything more about Jordan. Jordan this. Jordan that. It’s always about Jordan. What about Kenzie? What about my daughter? What about Kenzie’s daughters who don’t have a mother. What about my grandson who wasn’t even born?”
Mrs. Houk reluctantly agreed to be interviewed last week, having been persuaded by her husband, Jack, 64, and her daughter Jennifer Kraner, 39, Kenzie’s older sister.
“They told me I should say what I think. I should tell you flat out I’ve gotten tired of it. I’m angry. I’m tired of all the appeals. I want somebody to care about my family,” she said.
She described Kenzie as a warm and passionate woman who loved her daughters, was looking forward to the birth of her son, and who wanted Jordan to feel that he was an important and loved part of the family that had been blended about 13 months before Kenzie’s death.
“She would sometimes bring the girls over to my house so that she and Chris could take Jordan to the movies, just the three of them. She wanted him to feel special,” Mrs. Houk recalled.
Just as the Brown family feels that the system has been unjust to Jordan, Mrs. Houk feels the same system has been unjust to her family. She believes Jordan should have been tried as an adult, even if it meant being jailed without the possibility of parole. “The law is 10 and older in Pennsylvania if it’s homicide. Why even have the law if you’re not going to use it?” she said.
She and her husband have full custody of Kenzie’s daughters, now 11 and 14. They have been in counseling on and off since their mom’s death. She says each girl has been impacted in different ways.
She said it would be hard to move forward if it weren’t for her family. “I have responsibilities and that’s what keeps me going,” she said.
Karen Kane is a writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Paula Reed Ward contributed to this story.
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