Juvenile Tried as an Adult

In February, 2009, Jordan Anthony Brown, then 11 years old, was charged with first degree murder in the shotgun slaying of Kenzie Marie Houk, his father’s pregnant girlfriend while she was sleeping. He will be tried as an adult and could become the youngest American ever to be sentenced to life in prison without parole.

A western Pennsylvania judge has ruled that Jordan Brown will be tried as an adult, because the juvenile justice system is not likely to rehabilitate him by the time he turns 21. If convicted of his current charges of first degree murder, Jordan at 12 years old, would be the youngest American to serve a life sentence without any chance of parole.

Police say that in February 2009, when he was 11, Jordan used a .20-gauge shotgun to kill Kenzie Houk, 26, in the family’s farmhouse outside Pittsburgh. She was 9 months pregnant; the unborn baby also died.

“There is no indication of any provocation by the victim that led to her killing,” Lawrence County Judge Dominick Motto wrote in his ruling yesterday. “The offense was an execution-style killing of a defenseless pregnant young mother. A more horrific crime is difficult to imagine.”

The judge based his decision on Jordan’s refusal to take responsibility for the crime, which two court doctors for the prosecution and defense said was necessary for rehabilitation.

The trial could begin in May.

In August, he Pennsylvania state House Judiciary Committee heard from the relatives of both victims and convicts today on a proposal to abolish life sentences without parole for juveniles.

The United States is the only country that sentences juveniles to life in prison without parole, and Pennsylvania has about 450 juvenile lifers, more than any state, said Rep. Kenyatta Johnson, D-Philadelphia.

At Philadelphia’s City Hall, committee members listened to testimony for and against House Bill 1999, which also would grant every juvenile lifer in the state parole hearings after serving 15 years of a life sentence, and every three years thereafter.

Bobbi Jamriska, 38, of Shaler, spoke on behalf of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers. In 1993, Maurice Bailey of Crafton Heights, then 16, killed Jamriska’s sister, Kristina Grill, 15. Grill, was stabbed in the neck and beaten severely; investigators said her body had bloody footprints on her belly.

“There are bad seeds, individuals who are not fit to be part of a lawful functioning society,” she said. “There has to be within the legal system a means to keep these individuals from doing more harm to the innocent.”

She said life sentences are only imposed on juveniles in extreme situations, and that granting convicted killers parole hearings would force victims’ families to relive their losses.

But supporters of the new legislation note that juveniles’ brains are not fully developed and they lack key decision-making abilities.  Many juvenile lifers did not actually commit murder but were accessories, and the sentence is disproportionately meted out to minorities.

One-third of the state’s juvenile lifers were convicted of second-degree murder, said Ashley Nellis, a research analyst with the Washington D.C.-based The Sentencing Project, which researches and advocates for sentencing reforms.

Nellis also noted that the state’s 450 juvenile lifers, 315 are black.

“Social and medical research on young people verifies that they are categorically less culpable than adults because of their relative lack of maturity and underdeveloped ability to understand the consequences of their actions,” Nellis said. “Pennsylvania should join the growing consensus that rejects this practice.”