New Castle News

January 11, 2012

State court hears plea to open Jordan Brown proceedings

Nancy Lowry
New Castle News

PITTSBURGH — After almost three years of pretrial publicity, it is too late to protect a young suspect’s privacy, attorneys argued Tuesday.

Lawyers for three newspapers, including the New Castle News, argued before Pennsylvania Superior Court Judges Kate Ford Elliott, Jacqueline Shogan and Robert Colville. They are opposing the decision that closed proceedings involving Jordan Brown.

The 14-year-old is charged with two homicides in the Feb. 20, 2009, death of Kenzie Houk, 26, and her unborn baby.

Although Jordan was 11 at the time, he was charged as an adult, which is required under Pennsylvania law. In August, the case was transferred to juvenile court.

A month later, Lawrence County Judge John W. Hodge barred the news media and public from his hearing, citing state law that closes juvenile proceedings to the public.

The three newspapers appealed.

The papers’ attorneys said Hodge had abused his discretion by closing proceedings — as is typical in juvenile cases — because information has been available until now.

Under state law, they said, a criminal proceedings involving a 14-year-old defendant, charged as an adult, are open to the public. If a 12-year-old is charged in some crimes, proceedings may be open but it is up the discretion of the judge whether cases involving individuals younger than age 12 are open or closed to the public.

Jordan was six months shy of his 12th birthday at the time of the shooting. But because he was charged as an adult, his name and other detailed information about the case has been available to the public for almost three years, the lawyers noted.

In their questions, the judges seemed to focus on the statute’s language.

James Manolis, representing The News and arguing for public as well as media access, urged the court to consider “the least restrictive means” and options range from opening the proceedings to excluding the public but granting the news media limited access.

“This is no ordinary juvenile case,” argued Frederick Frank, representing the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “The public has the right to hear this matter to the end.”

Ronald Barber, representing the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, focused on constitutional issues of public access to court procedures.

However defense attorney Dennis Elisco said Hodge did not abuse his discretion and could have made no other ruling because of the language of the juvenile act.

“The existence of pretrial publicity does not lessen (Jordan’s) right to privacy.”

Following the hearing, Elisco declined to comment, noting that “In this proceeding you (the media) are my adversaries.”

Joining Elisco at Tuesday’s hearing was James P. Barker of Harrisburg, senior deputy attorney general.

“We walk a fine line, and it is our duty to advocate for the victims,” Barker said. “The Houk family wants the hearings to be open. They believe the public interest will be served in that way.”

However, Barker said he believes, “The constitution gave Hodge the discretion to act as he did.”

He added that when the case is presented, two other children might be called to testify.

“It is difficult for juveniles to testify in public,” he said. “We’re looking to protect them.”

Prior to arguments, Anthony Krastek, senior deputy attorney general who will prosecute the case, said he is “ready to go” whether proceedings are open or closed. He estimated his case will take three to five days.

“If not for this appeal,” he said, “I believe the case could have been resolved by now.”

Houk’s family wants the proceedings to be open.

“The media needs to be there,” said her mother, Debbie Houk. “The people have every right to know what is going on. They’ve been there since day one.”

If the panel rules against the papers, they will have to decide if they will appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Manolis said.

He explained parties must petition the court for permission to appeal.

“It is not an absolute right to appeal to the Supreme Court. But this, I believe, is an issue they might entertain.”