PITTSBURGH – A boy accused of murdering his father's pregnant fiancée with a shotgun blast when he was 11 years old should be tried in juvenile court instead of adult court, a judge said Tuesday in a reversal of a previous decision.
Unless state prosecutors successfully appeal Tuesday's decision, Jordan Brown, who turns 14 next week, will be tried by a juvenile court judge who can incarcerate or supervise him only until he turns 21 if he's ruled "delinquent," the equivalent of a guilty verdict.
If convicted as an adult in Common Pleas Court, Brown would have faced up to life in prison. That alone was reason enough to move the case to juvenile court, defense attorney David Acker said.
"The laws in Pennsylvania are archaic," Acker said. "In this case, there's no question the judge's ruling is correct. No child should face life in prison without the possibility of parole."
State attorney general's office spokesman Nils Hagen-Frederiksen said it was "premature" to say whether prosecutors will appeal Lawrence County Judge Dominick Motto's ruling. He wouldn't comment further on it.
The judge ruled last year that Brown should be tried as an adult, based primarily on the testimony of a prosecution psychiatrist who said juvenile court wasn't an appropriate venue given the boy's "lack of remorse."
But the Superior Court ordered the judge to reconsider his ruling — without considering the psychiatrist's findings. The appeals court agreed with the defense that the earlier ruling violated Brown's right against self-incrimination because Brown and his family have repeatedly maintained his innocence, even though state police and the attorney general's office say the evidence points to no one but the boy.
Prosecutors, on the other hand, have argued there's little chance the boy can be rehabilitated in the juvenile system if he continues to deny the crime.
The judge acknowledged in Tuesday's opinion that there's no evidence connecting anyone else to the crimes on Feb. 20, 2009. That morning, 26-year-old Kenzie Houk, who was 8 1/2 months pregnant, was shot in the back of the head with a .20-gauge shotgun while lying in bed. The shooting occurred after the boy's father, Christopher Brown, left for work, with only the boy and Houk's two daughters, ages 7 and 4, also in the house.
"The offense was an execution-style killing of a defenseless pregnant young mother," the judge wrote.
After Houk was shot, her unborn child died from a resulting lack of oxygen.
The Associated Press could not immediately reach Houk's relatives for comment by telephone Tuesday. But they have said they believe the boy killed Houk because he was jealous of the child she was carrying and was concerned he'd receive less attention from his father as a result.
The week the judge first held hearings about the juvenile court issue last year, Christopher Brown appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America" to reiterate his claim that his son was not only "too young" to appreciate the magnitude of the crime but also was simply innocent.
Acker, the defense attorney, said he disagreed that Christopher Brown's insistence that his son is innocent — and the boy's continued denials — will keep him from being rehabilitated in the juvenile system.
Acker said a major problem was that the judge had only two choices: allow the boy to face a possible life sentence or send him to a court that can supervise him only until he's 21. Some other states allow juveniles accused of serious crimes to be incarcerated or supervised beyond that age, which gives the system more flexibility in fashioning justice.
"That's one of the dilemmas in a case like this: The court's not happy with it, the attorney general's not happy with it and I'm not happy with it," Acker said.
Typically, the defense could now ask the court to hold a hearing to determine whether the boy will be released from a juvenile detention center in Erie. Acker said he won't do that, so the next step is for a judge to schedule a juvenile trial. It's unclear how soon that will happen.