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February 24, 2014

Jordan Brown Case, Five Years Later: After half a decade, intrigue and questions remain

NEW CASTLE — Unusual aspects of Jordan Brown’s case drew national and international attention.

Now 16, Jordan was 11 when he was charged as an adult with two counts of homicide in the fatal shooting of his father’s pregnant fiancée, Kenzie Marie Houk, 26.

Houk died Feb. 20, 2009, in the New Beaver Borough farmhouse she shared with Jordan and his father, Chris, and her daughters, then 4 and 7.

What made the story stand out was the age of the alleged shooter. Other factors included the presence of and access to guns and ammunition in the household and Pennsylvania law — which required that the suspect be charged as an adult.

With this action came the potential of the child being sentenced to life in jail without the possibility of parole, if he were to be convicted of the killings. Had this happened, he would have been the youngest person in the nation to face such a penalty.

After Lawrence County President Judge Dominick Motto denied the defense petition to move the case to juvenile court, Amnesty International weighed in.

Jordan’s lawyers and father were interviewed by TV psychologist Dr. Phil McGraw, Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, Good Morning America and news media from across the United States as well as London, Paris, Istanbul, Turkey, and Damascus, Syria.

The case garnered a page on Wikipedia, the Internet encyclopedia. AOL and other Internet sites have tracked progress of the case.

Motto’s decision to keep the case in criminal court also resulted in the involvement of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center.

“They don’t take on a lot of cases and their involvement has lightened our steps on this journey,” defense attorney Dennis Elisco said.

One contentious aspect early in the case was the life in prison without the possibility of parole requirement upon conviction.

This ceased to be a concern when the case was moved to juvenile court. In Pennsylvania, a conviction in juvenile court could result in a sentence no longer than “juvenile life,” meaning Jordan could not be held past his 21st birthday.

Jordan has been in custody since the day after the shooting. It was more than three years later — April 13, 2012 — that he was found responsible for the deaths — the juvenile justice system’s equivalent of a guilty verdict.

The conviction, Elisco said, was based on circumstantial evidence, including the presence of two specks of gunshot residue on Jordan’s clothing. One speck was found on the thigh of his jeans, the second on the chest of his shirt.

He said this caused the court to conclude that Jordan had fired a gun that morning.

Elisco noted the prosecution has consistently said the 20-gauge shotgun found in the home is the murder weapon.

The position of the defense, he continued, is that a small caliber handgun, not a shotgun, was used in the shooting. If a shotgun had been used, he said, gunshot residue would have been found in the carpet and would have covered Jordan’s clothing to a greater degree.

Elisco said even the prosecution’s expert witness “could not say with any certainty” where the residue had come from.

In fact, he continued, the presence of the small amount of residue could be explained by Jordan’s presence at a recent turkey shoot.

A like-new shell casing — said to have been tossed by Jordan on his way to the school bus and found about 100 feet away from the path to the bus — yielded no fingerprints or DNA linking it to Jordan, Elisco said.

Jordan’s fingerprints were not found on the gun the prosecution claims was used, he added, and no time of death ever has been established.

“When the police considered the autopsy, forensic and ballistics tests and gunshot residue evidence, they should have concluded Jordan was not guilty.”

In addition, no tracks — other than those made by Jordan and one of Houk’s daughters headed for the school bus — were found outside the house.

Anthony Krastek, Pennsylvania senior deputy attorney general who prosecuted the case, contends Houk was shot with a 20-gauge shotgun found in the house. That gun was said to have been a gift to Jordan from his father.

“The police focused on (Jordan) because he was the most likely perpetrator. All other possibilities were eliminated,” Krastek said in April 2012 while outlining the case he had presented before Lawrence County Judge John W. Hodge.

At the time, Krastek said the investigation showed that Jordan had perceived Houk’s daughters were treated better than he was and he was invisible.

“It may not have been the case, but that’s how it looked to an 11-year-old.”

Krastek also said then that the evidence linked Jordan to the crime. He noted that few people knew where the family lived and there was only a half-hour window of opportunity for the killer.

Someone would have had to know where they lived, know that guns were in Jordan’s room, know that the ammunition for the guns was kept in Houk’s room, go into her room without waking her, get the ammunition, kill her, return the gun to Jordan’s bedroom and leave without leaving footprints or tire tracks, he said.

On May 8, 2013, the Pennsylvania Superior Court overturned Hodge’s determination that Jordan was responsible for the deaths. It ordered the case back to Lawrence County.

The prosecution appealed that ruling to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear arguments March 12 in Philadelphia.

Elisco said the justices will be considering two issues raised by the prosecution.

“They say we waived any challenge of evidence because we did not file an immediate post-trial motion for a new trial so we can’t challenge it now. We contend there is nothing in juvenile court law that says we had to file such a motion.

“The second issue is that the evidence was adequate to support the conviction.”

Elisco said the Juvenile Law Center will argue the technical points and he will argue that the evidence did not support the conviction.

“I feel the Supreme Court will rule in our favor.”

If that happens, the case will be returned to Lawrence County for retrial or the charges will be dismissed.

Elisco said he believes the commonwealth will retry the case.

He appears to be correct. Last week, Krastek said he remains up to date with the case and ready to continue if he’s needed.

(Email: nlowry@ncnewsonline.com)

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