New Castle News

February 27, 2012

Mitchel Olszak: State guilty of dysfunction in Jordan Brown case

Mitchel Olszak
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — There are only two possibilities in the case of Jordan Brown.

He is either responsible for the February 2009 shooting death of Kenzie Houk or he is not.

If he is not responsible, that means the government has kept the boy in custody for three years — from the time he was 11 until his current age of 14. It is difficult to define the injustice of such a circumstance.

But if he is determined to be responsible for Houk’s death — as well as that of her unborn son, Jordan’s half-brother — that doesn’t exactly rectify the state’s situation.

When a juvenile is found to have committed an offense, and therefore defined as delinquent, the state’s goal is rehabilitation. In Jordan’s case, he undoubtedly would receive counseling, psychoanalysis and other care designed to determine how an 11-year-old could pick up a shotgun and fire it into the head of his father’s fiancée while she lay in bed.

And then catch the bus to go off to school.

The purpose of this treatment is to help a troubled youngster deal with his demons, with the intent of making sure he has the capacity to become a productive and law-abiding adult when he is released to society.

In the three years Jordan has been held, he has received no such treatment. He has been housed, educated and restricted in his movements.

But not rehabilitated, because in the eyes of the law, he remains innocent. So what’s to rehabilitate?

I am aware that Pennsylvania’s legal system, like all human creations, is imperfect. Yet in the matter of Jordan Brown, it is downright dysfunctional.

Regardless of whether you think the boy is innocent or guilty, regardless of whether you think an 11-year-old should be charged as an adult, I challenge you to look over the history of this case and conclude: “Yes, that’s a reasonable process.”

It took two and a half years of legal wrangling for Pennsylvania’s judicial system to determine Jordan should be handled as a juvenile. Then, when it was decided this highly publicized case should be handled behind closed doors, the New Castle News and two other newspapers objected.

Last week, the Pennsylvania Superior Court decided against the papers and in favor of secret sessions. After all this time in the spotlight, it was suddenly essential to protect Jordan’s privacy.

That’s because he was 11 when he was accused of committing a double homicide. Had he been 12, the doors of the courtroom likely would be open. Why? Because the law says so; no other explanation is necessary.

The News decided not to appeal, mainly because the move might add two more years of legal limbo to this sorry saga.

I always have been of the belief that common sense ought to play at least some role in determining the law. And perhaps I’m being naive, but I would like to think our commonwealth’s legislators and judges possess at least a smidgen of this cognitive quality.

So why do we have a process in Pennsylvania where an 11-year-old is charged as an adult in a serious crime, with years then spent trying to decide whether that status should stick? Meanwhile, the issue of guilt or innocence is put on the back burner.

Undoubtedly, our leaders in Harrisburg and in the courtrooms know that the case of an 11-year-old charged with homicide will receive intense publicity — far more than a 30-year-old accused of the same offense. So how did a legal system that supposedly cares about Jordan’s privacy allow the last three years to take place?

For the families of Jordan Brown and Kenzie Houk, this has been a painful period that’s far from over. For Pennsylvania’s legal system, it’s been a shameful period. Closing the courtroom doors won’t make that go away.