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February 24, 2014

Jordan Brown Case, Five Years Later: Defense attorney learns ‘to expect the unexpected’

NEW CASTLE — On the morning of Feb. 21, 2009, attorney Dennis Elisco met a boy who changed his life.

Thursday marked the five-year anniversary in the case of 16-year-old Jordan Brown.

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. She died in the New Beaver Borough farmhouse she shared with Jordan, his father, Chris, and her two daughters, then 4 and 7.

“If I’ve learned anything from this case, it is to expect the unexpected,” said Elisco, now preparing for arguments in front of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Elisco leads Jordan’s defense team, which currently includes attorney Stephen Colafella of Monaca. New Castle attorney David Acker was on the team early in the case. It also always has included the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center. All have worked pro bono to defend their client at no charge.

“No one has made a penny on this case, which has now stretched into its fifth year,” Elisco said.

His involvement began about 6:30 a.m. Feb. 21, 2009, when he was called by a distraught man in need of legal help for his young son.

“Jordan had been charged the night before,” Elisco said. “Chris Brown had called Josh Lamancusa, who was running for district attorney. He saw a potential conflict and recommended Dave Acker and me.”

By 10 a.m., Elisco was at the Lawrence County jail, meeting Jordan in a conference room.

“I’ll never forget. He was wearing the smallest prison jumpsuit they could find. The legs were rolled up four times but were still too long. The sleeves were rolled up as many times as they could be and still at his wrists. His feet dangling, not touching the ground. He looked like a kid sitting in a Little League dugout.”

Nothing about the case went as Elisco had anticipated.

“I expected the case would be decertified — transferred to juvenile court — within months of the preliminary hearing and proceed to adjudication or acquittal. I thought it would be wrapped up within the year.”

Now, past the five-year mark, the case remains the most unusual Elisco has ever taken.

He noted the defense has won every appeal it has presented on Jordan’s behalf

On the decertification question, Elisco said, he and Acker had to obtain Judge Dominick Motto’s approval to appeal his ruling to keep the case in criminal court.

Motto agreed to allow the appeal to Pennsylvania Superior Court, which ruled in favor of the defense. That resulted in the case being transferred to the juvenile justice system.

When the news media appealed Judge John W. Hodge’s ruling that barred the public from the juvenile court proceedings, the Superior Court agreed.

While waiting for the media appeal to be decided, Elisco said, he petitioned the court to release Jordan until his trial was conducted.

The Superior Court granted that defense request. However, the trial was scheduled within a few days, so Jordan was not released.

Elisco said the defense lost the trial, but prevailed in the appeal to the Superior Court, which ruled the evidence did not support the guilty verdict and ordered the case back to the county for retrial.

Next month, the state Supreme Court will hear the prosecution’s appeal of that Superior Court ruling.

“We won three interlocutory appeals — appeals held prior to the trial, prior to the verdict,” he said. “Normally a case is not appealable until after a verdict is rendered.”

Had anyone along the way said no, Elisco noted, the defense would have had to consider a plea bargain or gone to trial.

“But we would never have taken this boy before a jury to decide his fate. Even now, after I have seen the limited quality of evidence against him, I would never have run that risk.”

Elisco said the case has changed his life and raised his awareness.

Over the years, Elisco said, Jordan and his father, Chris Brown, have become like family to him.

“When Chris went to work the morning of Feb. 20, 2009, he and his fiancée were planning their marriage. They were about to have a son. He had a family that included his 11-year-old son and her two daughters. His future looked bright and promising.

“Within hours, his fiancée and the baby were dead and his own son was gone, charged with homicide — the youngest person in the United States ever to be charged as an adult with homicide.”

Elisco also said the case “exemplifies misguided and wrongful prosecution” which has denied justice to Jordan and the victim’s family.

“I will go to my grave believing in Jordan’s innocence,” he said. “I believe the Superior Court got it right when they ruled the evidence was inadequate to support a conviction.

“That’s pretty strong language.”

Elisco also said the case has garnered the most exposure of any in his career.

“Because Jordan is a juvenile, he could not be executed, so this case is less serious in terms of consequences.”

As a result of Jordan’s case, Elisco said, he believes Pennsylvania’s laws governing youthful offenders will change.

“I’m confident the law will change and this case may be the reason.”

The gravity of the situation, he said, was spelled out in a friend of the court brief filed in 2010. Several lawyers and organizations from across the country joined to advocate for the juvenile justice system and outlined issues previously unconsidered. This included consequences of jailing such a young person in prisons housing adults.

“They opened the eyes of people to see that an 11-year-old in an adult prison is unacceptable,” he said, adding they “are babies on the cognitive, physical and social levels.”

Jordan has been in custody since the day after the shooting. Currently, he is housed at Grove City’s George Junior Republic.

Elisco said he’s doing well academically. He noted Jordan is testing at second-year college level in reading and writing and third-year college level in math and science.

When Jordan is released, Elisco continued, he expects to see him go to college. “He’s an intelligent kid.”

Jordan “is very, very quiet and of course has been impacted by what has happened.

“He’s missed out on his childhood.”

(Email: nlowry@ncnewsonline.com)

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