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 Kenzie Houk and her unborn child. The judge closed the trial to the media and all but immediately family members because of the boy's age when the 26-year-old Houk died.
The boy's lawyer, Stephen Colafella, confirmed the verdict. He said that he would make a statement on the verdict but that Jordan Brown's father — who has maintained his son's innocence — would not.
The verdict on the criminal homicide charges means Brown could remain in juvenile court custody until he's 21. Whether he remains incarcerated in a juvenile facility that entire time or is eventually released on probation will be subject to future hearings on the state of his rehabilitation. He's been held in a facility about 80 miles from his home for most of the three years since he's been charged with criminal homicide.
Brown had faced the potential of life in prison without parole if convicted in Common Pleas, or adult court, which is where state officials initially filed the charges because that's required in Pennsylvania homicide cases regardless of a defendant's age.
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. Motto acknowledged finding no evidence connecting anyone else to the crimes on Feb. 20, 2009, and agreed with state prosecutors that as long as Brown refused to admit committing the crimes, his chance of rehabilitation in juvenile court was remote.
Both the boy and his supporters have insisted he's innocent.
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, Christopher Brown, 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. Police were called after Houk's younger daughter wandered outside and told a tree trimmer that she believed her mother was dead.
"The offense was an execution-style killing of a defenseless pregnant young mother," Motto wrote after reviewing ballistics evidence and testimony that suggested the boy may have been jealous of Houk's unborn son, who died of oxygen deprivation.
Brown's defense attorneys, however, argued that the boy was being forced to incriminate himself in order to avoid being tried as an adult and facing life in prison, 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.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and New Castle News then appealed to keep the juvenile court trial open to the public, arguing that the publicity the case received when Brown was charged as an adult had rendered a closed trial moot.
The Superior Court, however, sided with Hodge in allowing the trial to remain closed.
As a result, reporters were barred from hearing testimony and distant family members and friends on both side of the case sat outside the courtroom waiting for clues as witnesses, immediate family members and attorneys emerged during breaks in the testimony.
Houk's supporters wore white T-shirts that read, "Support & Luv. In memory of Kenzie & Baby Houk."
Brown's supporters echoed claim his father made on ABC's "Good Morning America" that his son was not only "too young" to appreciate the magnitude of the crime but also was simply innocent.
"We're waiting here like everybody else, and we're here to support Jordan because we know he's innocent and believe in him," family friend Dodi Frankovich said during the first day of testimony. "And we believe the evidence will clear him."