Vengeance at its most shameful

Jordan Brown, a resident of western Pennsylvania, is charged with shooting Kenzie Marie Houk and her unborn child. Police say that Brown shot her once at point blank range. Today, a judge ruled [thanks to Doc Berman via Gamso] that the prosecution against Brown can remain in his court and denied the defense’s motion for transfer of venue.

Jordan Brown is 12. At the time of the death of Houk, he was 11.

I repeat. Jordan Brown is 12. And a judge ruled that he can be tried as an adult. A state in these United States is about to prosecute an eleven year old as an adult murderer.

Here is a file picture of him, taken from CNN. Look at it. This cherubic 12 year old now faces life in prison. The rest of the post after the photo and the jump.

That this decision – to deny a transfer to juvenile court – is an abomination is an understatement. This decision makes Brown the youngest child charged as an adult anywhere in America.

The reasoning for doing so is even more shameful.

Since being charged with the murder of his father’s fiance, Jordan Brown, through his defense attorneys, has asserted his innocence.

Largely because of those denials, a Lawrence County judge ruled Monday that Brown, now 12 years old, will stand trial as an adult.

In his 17-page decision, [Judge Dominick] Motto ruled that the defense failed to meet its burden, in large part because Brown’s continued denials in the crime show an unwillingness to take responsibility for his actions, a necessary factor in rehabilitation.

Motto said that point was established by both forensic psychologists in the case — John O’Brien, who testified for the prosecution, and Kirk Heilbrun, the defense’s expert — who testified in de-certification hearings Jan. 29 and March 12

That the burden is on the defense to show that the child is capable of rehabilitation and is not a danger to society is absurd. The state of the law belies a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature and manner of the child psychology and the development of the human mind.

But again, this is an 11-12 year old we’re talking about. The law in Pennsylvania is that anyone above the age of 10 (10!!!) can be tried as an adult. In Connecticut, the threshold is 14.

To compound the travesty that is the untenably low age threshold and the burden on the defense to show something that should be presumed, the Judge then relies on the lack of “acceptance of responsibility” of an 11-12 year old to justify his decision to treat him like a full-grown adult. This is  judicial cowardice of the worst kind.

To say that in order to be treated as a juvenile, a child must display the kind of emotional maturity that most adults in the system are unable to display well into their 40s and then use the lack of that adult development to justify treating the child as an adult is mind-bogglingly contradictory and stupid.

The prosecutor gets no points, either. He, seemingly honestly, states:

“This is something that you wouldn’t even think of in your worst nightmare, that you’d have to charge an 11-year-old with homicide,” [Lawrence County District Attorney John] Bongivengo told a local CNN affiliate in Pittsburgh when Houk was killed in February 2009. “It’s heinous, the whole situation.”

This statement rings hollow. If this is your worst nightmare, John Bongivengo, then do something about it. If the decision is truly with the court to decide whether to transfer the case back to juvenile court, then side with the defense in urging the judge to do so. Don’t file a brief and argue that your relatively inexperienced “expert” correctly concluded that there is “very limited” capacity for juvenile treatment.

I understand the reasons for permitting juveniles to be tried as adults in the most serious of crimes. You do adult things, you face adult consequences. But to bring an 11-year old under aegis of such legal chicanery is appalling.

In most murder prosecutions – and certainly in death penalty prosecutions – vengeance is a driving factor. Punishment and revenge rule the day. But this is not the place for it and certainly an 11-year old is not a worthy object of the collective wrath of the adult criminal justice system.

It is a tragedy that Houk died and her unborn child along with it. But allowing this prosecution to continue does nothing but add to the utter destruction these people’s lives have already experienced. There is no need for vengeance here, but rather for the stern understanding displayed by a disappointed parent toward an unknowing, developmentally undeveloped adolescent.

When the law provides for him to be punished as juvenile for the next 10-11 years of his life, seeking to have as 12 year old incarcerated for the remainder of his natural life smells of nothing but shameful bloodlust.

As an 11-year old, Jordan Brown would still be in middle school. Maybe he just started noticing girls. Maybe he still wants to be a policeman or firefighter. He probably hasn’t stopped growing. And here we are, the best justice system in the world, condemning him to the possibility of spending the rest of his life in jail.

If this isn’t cruel and unusual, I don’t know what is.

29 thoughts on “Vengeance at its most shameful

  1. Pingback: Injustice « Really? Law?

      1. Candace

        I read in an article in the Huffington post that the gun belonged to the boy, was designed for children, and does not have to be registered. He apparently had regular hunting or target practices with his dad.

  2. Miranda

    I feel like I’m missing something. How is it constitutional to require the defendant to have the burden to show acceptance of responsibility in order to get a transfer to juvenile court? In other words, the defendant must admit guilt and incriminate himself in order to get to juvenile court?? That is deeply disturbing.

    1. Gideon Post author

      That’s the impression I got from the news articles. Is that the actual standard? I don’t know. But the article sure makes it seem like that’s what the judge ruled.

      There really are lots and lots of problems with this case and your point is one of them.

  3. Gideon Post author

    Not that this is terribly relevant, but the article on the judge’s denial of the motion states that Jordan is ineligible for the death penalty because he’s under 14. I wish these reporters would do some homework.

    1. Bunnybee

      Oh that’s nice. A 14 year old can be sentenced to death?
      Also, the child is proclaiming his innocence. Is there any chance that he did not do it? Where does the father stand? He is father of accused and husband of victim. I wonder what he wants for his son?

      1. Gideon Post author

        No, a 14 year old cannot, per Roper v. Simmons. It is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence someone under the age of 18 to death.

        Who knows whether he did it or not. The evidence that led them to him seems to be his footprints in the snow outside the house. I don’t know what else they have on him.

        The father certainly is in a tricky situation and a very tragic one at that. He faces not two, but three potential losses of family members.

  4. BCS

    What’s troubling about this case isn’t that the kid is 12 or that the burden is on the defense. What’s troubling about it is that apparently the judge denied the request because the kid has the gall to assert his innocence. Even worse, there was expert testimony that admitting the crime would show the ability to be rehabilitated. Wait? What happened to innocent until proven guilty? Maybe there is something more to this story that hasn’t been reported, but if the reason for denying the request is truly that the kid says he’s innocent, then this is a miscarriage of justice of monumental proportions.

    1. Gideon Post author

      I agree. That’s what jumped out at me the most, besides the age obviously. I’d love to get my hands on a copy of this decision.

  5. Kimberly Diego

    I am dumbfounded at how a law was passed in that state allowing a child that young to be considered, under any circumstances, and for any purposes, an “adult”.

    I did some cursory research, and it looks like PA hears these cases first in criminal court – and only if there is a transfer back by the criminal court will the juvenile court have jurisdiction. The transfer process does appear to place the burden on the child to demonstrate that his transfer would be consistent with the public interest, with a consideration of the factors enumerated below:

    (iii) In determining whether the public interest can be served, the court shall consider the following factors:
    (A) the impact of the offense on the victim or
    (B) the impact of the offense on the community;
    (C) the threat to the safety of the public or
    any individual posed by the child;
    (D) the nature and circumstances of the offense
    allegedly committed by the child;
    (E) the degree of the child’s culpability;
    (F) the adequacy and duration of dispositional
    alternatives available under this chapter and in the
    adult criminal justice system; and
    (G) whether the child is amenable to treatment,
    supervision or rehabilitation as a juvenile by
    considering the following factors:
    (I) age;
    (II) mental capacity;
    (III) maturity;
    (IV) the degree of criminal sophistication
    exhibited by the child;
    (V) previous records, if any;
    (VI) the nature and extent of any prior
    delinquent history, including the success or
    failure of any previous attempts by the juvenile
    court to rehabilitate the child;
    (VII) whether the child can be rehabilitated prior to the expiration of the juvenile court jurisdiction;
    (VIII) probation or institutional reports,
    if any;
    (IX) any other relevant factors; and
    (iv) that there are reasonable grounds to believe
    that the child is not committable to an institution for
    the mentally retarded or mentally ill.

    1. Gideon Post author

      Thanks a lot for doing this. I was going to look up the statute myself, but it was late and I’m lazy.

      I wonder if there have been any challenges to this statute. I’ll do a quick search to see. It seems wrong to have the place the burden on the defense to prove, among other things, “the degree of culpability”.

      Looking at the factors under G, 1, 2 & 3 seem to favor the child right off the bat, we’d have heard about 5 & 6 if anything existed.

      How any “expert” can say that an 11 year cannot be rehabilitated is beyond me.

  6. Candace

    I read in the Huffington Post that the gun belonged to the boy and it was designed for children. The police found it after the murder in what is believed to be the boys bedroom. To me this is a huge red flag. The boys gun? Designed for children? children? I guess this is what happens when someone designs a gun and hands it to an 11 year old.

  7. Nico

    Hi, I’m from the Netherlands and want to make a reply on the discussion here. If my english is a little wrong, please forgive me.
    I follow this case from last year june. The gun used bij Jordan(if he really did it) is a small hunting riffle. They said he plant the murder on the pregnant girlfriend of his father. He got the riffle as present from his father en went hunting with him. How it is possible to have the riffle and the ammunition in his bedroom is a big question. How is is possible that a father and his girlfriend let that happen. I donn’t think Jordan planned it, because why did he lay the riffle back in his bedroom en trough the gunshelf just outside his home in the gras/snow. I think something happend that made him do it. What has happend? Was his stepmother realy sleeping as they say? Or is there somebody else who did the killing, blaming Jordan. I donn’t know.
    Gideon said that the US have “the best justice system in the world”. Bullshit I think! Locking up children for life in prison is very wrong! Your country is the only country in the whole world were this can happen! Jorden wil be the ultimate youngest kid, and not only in the US, but in the whole world to be locked away in prison for life, with no chance to come out again.
    For the rest I agree with you. It is a shame that a child must confesse a crime in witch he denied to have done to help himself not to end in jail for the rest of his life. I cann’t and wonn’t understand this. I donn’t want to say that the justicesystem in my country is watertight, but juveniles get the chance to rehabilitate
    them selfs. They never will be locked up for life in jail. And in my country we beleave and know by sience that childern of that age cann’t fully be responseble for there actions. There are circumstances and facts that led to his descicion. Have you seen a documetory about juveniles on the internet?
    Your justicesystem is based on fier, revenge, politics and money. I’m sorry to say so, but someone mentioned it that the US is “third world country”. He is right concerning the justicesystem.
    I hope someone(the president perhaps) wake up and take effort to do something about this, because it is very very wrong.

    Greetings and thanks for reading.


  8. womanwearingblack

    and why isn’t juvenile transfer truly an Apprendi matter? surely these lawyers are going after the constitutionality of the statute, unless it’s been done before…I just read a bunch of caselaw from all over the country and it needs to be litigated much more aggressively than it has been to date. Kid looks just like mine in his first tackle football uniform.

  9. gloria

    have a look at Dan daily diary Wandervogel diary in google. You will find all the truth there. You will have to read it all through including comments. I believe in Jordan’s innocence and I will always say Jordan brown is innocent.

  10. Dan Dailey

    I just found this site and posting because of a referral to my blog at, where I have been reporting on Jordan Brown’s case since his Jordan’s father asked me to become involved.

    This case is far more shameful than is described in this posting. The truth is, Jordan Brown is completely innocent and has been wrongfully accused as a result of laughably incompetent police work and a dishonest, politically-motivated prosecutor. The forensic evidence collected by police suggests a handgun (not Jordan’s shotgun) was used as the murder weapon. A former boyfriend who had made death threats against the victim was ignored by police. Official corruption in this part of Pennsylvania is so serious that a longstanding belief in the community is that Lawrence County PA is the best place in the country to get away with murder.

    If you wish to get the true facts of what is happening with this case, please visit my blog. You will be amazed that this travesty can be happening in America.


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