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May 9, 2013

Appeals court overturns Jordan Brown ruling

NEW CASTLE — A Pennsylvania appeals court has overturned the Jordan Brown decision in Lawrence County.

As a result, a new juvenile proceeding will be needed for the now-15-year-old accused in the 2009 shooting death of his father’s pregnant fiancée, Kenzie Houk.

In a decision filed Wednesday, the Pennsylvania Superior Court overturned the 2012 delinquency ruling by Lawrence County Judge John Hodge.

A determination of delinquency in a juvenile proceeding is the equivalent of a guilty verdict in adult court.

In its ruling, the appeals court decided Hodge’s decision was contrary to the evidence presented at Jordan’s adjudication hearing. The appeals court also ordered Jordan’s case returned to the local court for “further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

The Superior Court acted on the appeal of Jordan’s attorneys, Stephen Colafella and Dennis Elisco, who argued the evidence presented at Jordan’s juvenile hearing in April of last year was insufficient to support the finding that he was responsible for the shooting.

In particular, the court noted that an alleged key witness against Jordan, Houk’s daughter Janessa (who was 7 at the time of the shooting), did not testify in the juvenile proceeding. The appeals panel also saw problems with the lack of physical evidence linking Jordan to the crime, including a limited amount of gunpowder residue on his clothing and the lack of blood on Jordan and the shotgun he owned that police said had been used in the killing.

In addition, the appeals court was critical of Hodge’s determination that no other individual could have been responsible for the shooting.

The 30-page opinion was an extensive review of the Jordan Brown case.

The matter bounced around Lawrence County courts for more than three years, mainly over legal questions of Jordan’s status. Despite being 11 at the time of the shooting, Jordan was immediately charged as an adult, as required by Pennsylvania law.

Eventually, after the case was reviewed by the Pennsylvania Superior Court, Lawrence County President Judge Dominick Motto transferred Jordan’s proceedings to juvenile court in August 2011.

Until that time, court activities involving Jordan were public. But testimony in his juvenile case was conducted behind closed doors. Prior to the Superior Court’s opinion, no official details were released about testimony at those proceedings.

And in reviewing the record, the Superior Court took exception to Hodge’s determination of the evidence, declaring in repeated instances that his findings were broader than justified by the evidence.

It concluded that Hodge had “committed a palpable abuse of discretion in rendering a ruling that is plainly contrary to the evidence.”

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