New Castle News

January 24, 2011

Jordan Brown Case: Legal experts want boy to be tried as juvenile

Nancy Lowry
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — If he is convicted, Jordan Brown will be the youngest person in the nation sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

A group of legal experts and advocates for the juvenile justice system are hoping to prevent that from happening.

On Sept. 13, they filed an amicus curiae — friend of the court — brief in support of Jordan. They are asking the Superior Court of Pennsylvania’s Western District to reverse the lower court order that denied Jordan’s request to move the case to juvenile court.

Jordan, 13, is charged as an adult with two counts of homicide in the death of his father’s pregnant fiancée, Kenzie Marie Houk. The 26-year-old was shot Feb. 20, 2009, in the New Beaver house she shared with Jordan, his father and her two daughters. Jordan was 11 at the time.

Defense attorneys Dennis Elisco and David Acker have asked that the case be moved to the juvenile system.

If convicted as an adult, Jordan could face a sentence of life in prison without parole. If the same happens in juvenile court, he could remain in custody until he turns 21.



ARGUING TUESDAY

Acker, who will argue his case before the high court tomorrow morning, said this filing could help his case.

“These are additional resources, additional points of view,” he said. “In this instance, it highlights points of the case. I hope the court has read it.”

He also noted Amnesty International, an organization that supports human rights, has weighed in on the case.

“I have received letters from all over the world commenting on this case,” Acker said. “This is one area where the U.S. lags behind the rest of the world.”

Those participating in the friend of the court brief are the Campaign for Youth Justice, the Defender Association of Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Prison Society, professors Jeffrey Shook, Elizabeth Scott and Barry C. Field, the Center on Wrongful Conviction of Youth, and the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

Those groups and individuals all are dedicated to ending the practice of trying, sentencing and incarcerating those under 18.

The brief references 20 cases in five states and other authorities, which it asks the court to consider.



CASE HISTORY

On March 29, Lawrence County President Judge Dominick Motto ruled Jordan should remain in the adult system to be tried.

In his order, Motto said evidence presented had not convinced him Jordan is amenable to rehabilitation provided through the juvenile system because he has not admitted responsibility for the deaths.

The defense argued the ruling violates Jordan’s constitutional right against self-incrimination. Under Motto’s ruling, they claim, Jordan would have to admit he had committed the crime in order to be eligible for the juvenile justice system.

On May 12, Motto acknowledged grounds existed for a difference of opinion. He amended his order, acknowledging a constitutional question involving self-incrimination might have been raised.

In June, Acker and Elisco asked the Pennsylvania Superior Court to hear an appeal of Motto’s decision. On July 27, the court granted permission.



CONCERNS

In their brief to the courts, the “friends” raised questions and arguments to be considered:

•Can a child be considered “not amenable” to treatment and the case not moved to the juvenile system because the child has not admitted to committing the offense prior to the hearing?

This issue, the brief states, involves the presumption of innocence question — a fundamental right guaranteed under the U.S. and Pennsylvania constitutions.

The brief points out that Jordan, then 11, had no previous juvenile record, arrests, or involvement with the juvenile justice system.

If prosecuted and found guilty in the adult system, Jordan will become “Pennsylvania’s prisons’ youngest inmate ever. He will also be the youngest person sentenced to juvenile life without parole in the U.S.”

In a recent report, the brief noted, Pennsylvania was identified as “one of four states with the worst possible outcomes for pre-adolescent offenders” when considering the combination of transferring cases and sentencing policies and practices.

•The court should refuse to allow Jordan to be treated as an adult for a crime that occurred when he was 11 years old.

The brief includes the opinions of various sociologists, psychologists, social workers and neuroscientists that children are developmentally different from adults.

“As a result, (they) are less blameworthy than adults and unsuited to the use of corrections in the adult criminal system.”

Children, especially at age 11, “are well-suited to respond to the unique rehabilitative structures and programs of a juvenile correctional system.”

Five days after the county court order was amended, it notes, the U.S. Supreme Court held that it is unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile to life without possibility of parole for a non-homicide crime. This, the participants said, acknowledges adolescent developmental research that established “juveniles are more capable of change than are adults.”

“While (Motto) did not have opportunity to consider this ruling,” the document said, “the high court has the opportunity to consider this in deciding the appeal.”

•According to the brief, the juvenile justice system is the only area where Jordan can receive the treatment, supervision and rehabilitation he needs.

Noting the national and international community opposes trying children as young as Jordan as adults, the brief asks the court to reverse the order denying Jordan’s move to the juvenile system.

•Research has established that juveniles are more impulsive, exhibit less reasoned judgment but possess a unique potential for rehabilitation. They ask that Jordan’s case be sent to the juvenile system where, if found guilty, he may be able to access rehabilitative services designed for children that enable them to become responsible and productive members of society.

Other courts held that “a juvenile’s natural immaturity and underdeveloped sense of responsibility results in impetuous and ill-considered action and decisions.”

According to an expert in adolescent brain development, “The teenage brain ... is like a car with good acceleration but a weak brake. With powerful impulses under poor control, the likely result is a crash.”

“A child’s underdeveloped brain, the document says, “... is not yet equipped to think things through as adults can.

“Children are not able to put facts together to draw logical conclusions and do not consider consequences of their decisions and actions.”

Yet, the same conditions that cause juveniles to act immaturely and irresponsibly also make them better candidates for rehabilitation.

“Juveniles are more capable of change than are adults. As the brain matures, the adolescent is better able to manage impulse reactions and make good moral judgments.”

The document also notes, “Many (who examined the question) conclude that children as young as Jordan should not be tried in the adult system.”

The brief states the American Bar Association has opposed transferring those younger than 15 to adult court or placing youth in adult penal facilities without adequate treatment services.

They conclude that children — especially those as young as Jordan — should not be treated as adults by the criminal system but can and should be rehabilitated in the juvenile justice system.