PITTSBURGH – A boy who was 11 when he was accused of killing his father's pregnant fiancée and her unborn son was found guilty Friday of their 2009 shotgun slayings.
Lawrence County Judge John Hodge found the now-14-year-old Jordan Brown delinquent, the juvenile court equivalent of a guilty verdict, in the deaths of 26-year-old Kenzie Houk and her unborn child. The judge closed the trial, held about 45 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, to the media and all but close family members because of the boy's age during the killings.
The boy's lawyer, Stephen Colafella, said it was too early to say if he'd appeal the judge's ruling on the first-degree murder and criminal homicide charges.
Deputy Attorney General Anthony Krastek said the guilty verdict was important because it would allow the boy to receive counseling and other treatment that had been denied because he and his family had refused to acknowledge his guilt.
"It's sad that it's coming so late," Krastek said, referring to the fact that Brown has been in a juvenile facility about 80 miles from his home for most of the three years since he was charged. "We offered this same result two years ago and it was stubbornly refused."
"I read in the newspaper the other day that his father said he was the biggest victim in this whole thing," Krastek said. "That's the mindset we've been dealing with. Finally the child's best interest can be attended to right now."
Colafella said Christopher Brown, the boy's father, wouldn't be commenting but was "extremely disappointed" by the verdict. Brown had gone on ABC's "Good Morning America" two years ago to proclaim his son's innocence and repeated that for local reporters after closing arguments in the trial Thursday.
"He now has to wrestle with two issues: One is the impact of the verdict and his belief in his son's innocence," Colafella said. "And, at the same time, he must shift his focus to the treatment aspect of the verdict."
County probation officials will devise a treatment plan for the boy, who remains in a juvenile lockup where his status will be reviewed every six months, according to Charles Marker, a retired Westmoreland County judge with nearly 30 years of experience in juvenile court.
"''They do that because it could be the youngster's turned around his life, and you want to address that if it happens," said Marker, who wasn't involved in the case.
Jack Houk said his daughter's murder has tempered the family's gratitude for the verdict. "We're not 'happy' happy, but we're pleased," Houk said.
Houk said Hodge told both families "there's no winners here" and urged them both to accept his verdict and move on accordingly.
Brown could conceivably be released on probation if juvenile court officials ever feel that he's progressed enough to warrant that. But his custody will end at age 21 no matter what because he was convicted in juvenile court. Brown faced life in prison without parole if convicted of the same charges in Common Pleas, or adult court. That's where state officials initially filed the charges because that's required in Pennsylvania homicide cases regardless of a defendant's age.
"I hope he gets the treatment he needs in the time period that he's got, short as it is," Houk said.
The case grabbed headlines as much due to the chilling nature of the crimes as the ill-fitting Pennsylvania laws governing juvenile homicide suspects, which prompted two Superior Court appeals. The first resulted in the case being moved to juvenile court and the second was an unsuccessful attempt by three western Pennsylvania newspapers to open the trial to the public even though Hodge had the discretion to close the case because Brown was under 12 when the killings occurred.
Another Lawrence County judge, Dominick Motto, initially refused to move the case to juvenile court because he found no evidence connecting anyone else to the killings on Feb. 20, 2009, and agreed with prosecutors that Brown's refusal to admit guilt made his chance of rehabilitation in juvenile custody remote.
Houk, who was 8 1/2 months pregnant, was shot in the back of the head with Brown's .20-gauge youth model shotgun while lying in bed. The shooting occurred after the boy's father left for work, with only Jordan Brown and Houk's two daughters, ages 7 and 4, also in the house.
State police investigators found a spent shotgun shell dropped along a path that Brown walked with Houk's older daughter to catch a bus to school minutes after the shooting. "The offense was an execution-style killing of a defenseless pregnant young mother," Motto wrote.
Brown's attorneys argued that the boy was being forced to incriminate himself in order to avoid being tried as an adult and the appeals court agreed.
Months later, Motto reconsidered, after he was ordered by the court to give more weight to a defense expert who thought Jordan would do well in rehabilitation, and moved the case to juvenile court.