A 12-year-old boy charged with killing his father's pregnant fiance is unlikely to be rehabilitated in the juvenile justice system by his 21st birthday, so he will stand trial as an adult, a Lawrence County judge ruled Monday.
If convicted of first-degree murder, legal experts say, Jordan Brown would be the youngest person in the country to serve a life sentence in prison without parole.
Police say Jordan fatally shot Kenzie Houk, 26, with a 20-gauge shotgun as she slept in their New Beaver farmhouse in February 2009. Her unborn son, who was nearly full term, also died. Jordan was 11 at the time.
"There is no indication of any provocation by the victim that led to her killing," Judge Dominick Motto wrote in his ruling. "The offense was an execution-style killing of a defenseless pregnant young mother. A more horrific crime is difficult to imagine."
Jordan's attorneys had asked Judge Motto to move the case to juvenile court, relying largely on testimony from a defense psychologist who said the boy would be at "low-risk" for future violence. That conclusion was "extremely vague," Judge Motto wrote, noting that the psychologist, Kirk Heilbrun, did not fully consider the possibility of Jordan's guilt in his assessment.
At the heart of the judge's decision was Jordan's refusal to take responsibility for the crime, which both Dr. Heilbrun and prosecution psychiatrist John S. O'Brien II, testified is necessary for rehabilitation. The law, however, does not require a confession to move a case to juvenile court.
Dr. O'Brien said it is unlikely the boy will ever admit guilt, "thus making the prospects of rehabilitation within the confines of the juvenile court jurisdiction likely to be unsuccessful," the judge wrote.
Jordan's trial could start as soon as May.
The judge's order drew dismay from juvenile justice experts, who said Jordan's brain is not fully developed and he is incapable of the criminal sophistication prosecutors allege.
Defense attorneys Dennis A. Elisco and David Acker said they have not decided how to proceed and were considering their options Monday. They could make an interlocutory appeal, in which they would seek Judge Motto's permission to appeal his decision in Superior Court.
Although they agree with Judge Motto's decision, prosecutors could still opt to move the case to juvenile court, said Kevin Harley, a spokesman for the state attorney general's office, which is handling the case.
"He made the right decision and did the best he could," said Ms. Houk's father, Jack. "But it will never ease our grief."
Jordan's father, Christopher Brown, declined to comment. He was headed Monday afternoon to the Edmund L. Thomas Adolescent Detention Center in Erie to deliver the news to Jordan himself, Mr. Elisco said. The boy's attorneys maintain he is innocent. "It's such a disappointing result," he said. "We'll regroup, get back into it and keep up the fight."
Judge Motto based his decision on, among other factors, the impact of the killings on the community and on Ms. Houk's family. He looked at Jordan's background, his degree of culpability, his mental capacity and "the degree of criminal sophistication exhibited by the child."
Prosecutors have said Jordan harbors resentment when he feels treated unfairly. The impending birth of his half-brother, named for his father, Christopher, likely made him similarly resentful, they said, as he was asked to move out of his room to accommodate the baby.
Police say Jordan hid a 20-gauge shotgun under a blanket so Ms. Houk's daughter would not see it, shot Ms. Houk and then left for school, discarding a shell casing outside their home.
"It is also relevant that the nature and the commission of the offense shows a significant degree of forethought, planning, and an effort on the defendant's part to make sure that it would be impossible or difficult to determine that he was the person responsible for the incidents," Judge Motto wrote. "The offense was necessarily premeditated."
The juvenile system has rehabilitated other youth offenders and has the resources to work for someone like Jordan, whose brain is still developing, said Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center. If found guilty, he said, Jordan should be held accountable in a "developmentally appropriate way."
"We know children don't premeditate the same way adults do," he said. "They are incapable of that planning and sophistication. Kids of that age are not just small adults. They develop in very rapid ways."
Sadie Gurman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1878.