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February 20, 2014

Jordan Brown, Five Years Later: Slaying shocks community; case drags on

NEW CASTLE — The morning of Feb. 20, 2009, workers cutting trees in New Beaver Borough were surprised to find a little girl in distress.

Getting the attention of the men, the child announced, “My mommy is dead.”

So began one of the most bizarre and extensive criminal cases in Lawrence County history. Five years on, it shows no sign of reaching its conclusion.

The first officer to arrive at 1146 Wampum-New Galilee Road would later testify he parked the child in front of the television and called for an ambulance. He would later say when he found a woman on a blood-soaked bed in a downstairs bedroom, he thought she had suffered a miscarriage. It wasn’t until she was placed on a gurney that responders found a head wound, the source of the blood.

Kenzie Marie Houk, 26, was almost nine months pregnant when she died of a gunshot wound to the head. Her unborn son, the coroner would report, died of oxygen deprivation.

But if there was anything that could shock a community more than the fatal shooting of a young, pregnant woman, it was the news, less than 24 hours later, regarding the suspect.

The day of the shooting, state troopers skilled in interviewing children, visited Mohawk Elementary School, where they collected Houk’s daughter Jenessa, 7, and Jordan Brown, the son of Houk’s fiancé, Chris.

Officers asked them what they knew and what they had heard.

In the wee hours of the next day, 11-year-old Jordan was charged with two counts of criminal homicide.

He was arraigned before District Judge Scott McGrath.

On the job about a year, McGrath had never had a homicide case. He contacted the more experienced District Judge David Rishel.

Rishel later recalled walking to McGrath’s inner office, where the judge and police were conferring.

“There had been a little kid sitting in the lobby. I asked what was he doing there, because it was so late. I was told, ‘That’s the defendant.’ ”

Rishel said Jordan and his father openly cried during the arraignment, before the troopers took the child away.

“Scott and I talked to Chris for a long time afterward,” he recalled. “The man was emotionally destroyed and I was afraid of what he might do. I told him, ‘Your son needs you right now more than ever before.’”

Jordan was taken to the Lawrence County jail, then lodged in a juvenile detention center in Beaver County and then a juvenile center in Erie.

He was initially charged as an adult, as required by Pennsylvania law.

His defense team — local attorneys David Acker and Dennis Elisco and the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center — spent the next two and a half years working to get the case transferred to the juvenile justice system.

Although the case drew not only local, but national and international coverage, in the fall of 2011, Lawrence County Common Pleas Court Judge John W. Hodge barred the public from the proceedings. He noted this is customary in juvenile court.

Regional media, including the New Castle News, petitioned to have the hearings opened, but were unsuccessful.

The hearing to determine Jordan’s fate began April 10, 2012.

Prosecutors called 13 witnesses over parts of two days. The defense presented Jordan’s case in one afternoon.

On April 13, Hodge ruled Jordan delinquent, the juvenile equivalent of guilty.

A month later, he was sentenced to go to a juvenile facility in Chambersburg, Pa. The juvenile justice system requires cases be reviewed every six months.

After the first review of Jordan’s case, he was transferred to Grove City’s George Junior Republic on Nov. 29, 2012.

Following legal maneuvers from both sides, the Pennsylvania Superior Court overturned Hodge’s ruling of delinquent, saying the evidence was not sufficient to support that verdict.

More legal wrangling in the state’s appeals courts have led to today — less than three weeks before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will hear Jordan’s case. The seven justices are scheduled to convene March 12 in Philadelphia.

(Email: nlowry@ncnewsonline.com)

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