Twelve-year-old Jordan Brown's future rests in a courtroom. The question is which one.
Prosecutors say the fifth-grader used a 20-gauge shotgun to kill his father's pregnant fiancee as she slept in February in their farmhouse in New Beaver.
If he is tried and found delinquent in juvenile court, the state could not incarcerate him beyond his 21st birthday.
If he is tried and convicted of first-degree murder in adult court, experts say he would become the youngest person in the United States to serve a mandatory life sentence in prison without parole.
A Lawrence County judge this week will hear arguments about how to try Jordan, who was 11 when he was charged with two counts of homicide, including the killing of an unborn child.
The hearing Friday before President Judge Dominick Motto is the next step in a case that has scarred two families and captured the attention of juvenile justice experts nationwide. They say Jordan's saga highlights legal and emotional dilemmas that arise when a child is caught between juvenile and adult court.
"It is irresponsible to be sending into adult court these youth who are still growing and changing," said Jody Kent, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth, which is monitoring the case.
"It's impossible to determine now what an 11-year-old is going to look like 20, 30, 40 years from now."
But relatives of slaying victim Kenzie Houk, 26, say that if Jordan is convicted, spending less than a decade in a juvenile detention center would not be an adequate punishment.
"We are serving a life sentence," said Deborah Houk, who is raising her daughter's two girls, Adalynn, 4, and Jenessa, 8. "We have been serving it a year and we will be serving it the rest of our lives."
Among the issues Judge Motto will consider is whether Jordan, who has been in the Edmund L. Thomas Adolescent Detention Center in Erie since shortly after the Feb. 20 slayings, is "amenable to juvenile treatment." His lawyers will seek to prove that he is, relying on such factors as his maturity level, the nature of the crime and the rehabilitation he might undergo.
One of Jordan's attorney's, Dennis A. Elisco, has said that he is developing well in the detention center. Counselors there and other witnesses will likely testify on Jordan's behalf, saying he has a "lack of propensity for violence and good character," Mr. Elisco said.
Juvenile probation officers will also likely tell the judge about the programs available through juvenile rehabilitation, he said.
The state attorney general's office will prosecute the case because Lawrence County District Attorney John Lamancusa, who took office this month, has a conflict of interest. A spokesman for the attorney general's office could not be reached for comment.
In court papers filed in an effort to move the case to juvenile court, Mr. Elisco and attorney David Acker wrote that before Jordan was charged in the killings, he had never been in detention and had no "delinquent history." They wrote that the juvenile court system has "adequate, appropriate and effective" facilities for Jordan's treatment.
"He's still a typical 12-year-old, interested in sports and what's for dinner," Mr. Elisco said. "He's still lacking the capacity to appreciate the magnitude of what's going on, but he's developing."
Ms. Houk's relatives disagree. Mrs. Houk said Jordan is charged with an adult crime and, if convicted, should "serve it like an adult."
Through Mr. Elisco, Jordan's father, Christopher Brown, declined to comment. But in letters to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jordan's relatives maintain he is innocent of the charges against him. They say he has been robbed of his childhood and they believe aspects of the criminal investigation remain incomplete.
Cyndi Wiseman, Jordan's great-aunt, said the legal process has been frustrating for family members, who attend hearings wearing bracelets embossed with messages that include, "We support Jordan." She said Mr. Brown tries to visit his son every day, as do other relatives. Juvenile detention "is a scary place" for Jordan, she said.
"Everybody tries to adjust and help as much as we can," said Ms. Wiseman, who submitted the letters to the Post-Gazette. Mr. Brown has appeared stoic while attending court hearings, but she said he remains deeply troubled by the loss of his fiance and unborn child.
"He lost a son, his life was completely changed." Ms. Wiseman said. "You can't read him by looking at him, but he holds it all in."
Prosecutors have described the crime as cold-blooded and premeditated. They say Jordan shot his future stepmother, put the shotgun back in his bedroom, got rid of the spent shell casing and rode the bus to Mohawk Elementary School with Ms. Houk's daughter, Jenessa.
Jordan's father was at work at the time. Ms. Houk's daughter, Adalynn, discovered her mother's body and ran to a group of workers trimming trees nearby.
The Houks have said Jordan was jealous of his father's fiancee, whose full-term baby was to have been named Christopher, after his father. Jordan's attorneys have denied there was any animosity.
But both families agree their lives have been irrevocably changed. Now they are bracing for a court hearing that likely will offer no solace, no matter the outcome.
Sadie Gurman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1878. First Published January 25, 2010 5:00 AM