Prosecutors frustrated by limited options for trying juvenile murders
The law isn't built for a case like Jordan Brown's.
The 11-year-old boy, charged with killing his father's pregnant girlfriend with a shotgun, has kept prosecutors up at night and caused a national stir.
"It scares us," said Allegheny County Judge Kim Berkeley Clark, who handles juvenile cases. "Because we don't like to think that our children, small children, are capable of these types of things."
Neither do lawmakers.
That's why the legal mechanism for dealing with Jordan's case has Lawrence County District Attorney John Bongivengo flummoxed. As a murder suspect, Jordan is required to be charged as an adult because Pennsylvania law says murder cannot be a delinquent act.
Yesterday morning, Jordan was moved to the Allencrest Juvenile Detention Center in Beaver, an 18-bed facility that handles kids as young as 10. Mr. Bongivengo determined it was a better place for Jordan than the Lawrence County Jail, where there were no uniforms that fit him and he was sequestered from other inmates.
But, in an illustration of how ill-equipped the law is to handle such a circumstance, Jordan is technically not allowed to be at the juvenile facility, Judge Clark said, because he's been deemed an adult defendant.
Pennsylvania is one of five states -- the others are Delaware, Florida, Nevada and Wisconsin -- where Jordan would automatically be charged as an adult, according to data compiled by the Pittsburgh-based National Center for Juvenile Justice.
His attorney, Dennis Elisco, said he will argue to have the case moved to juvenile court, but the burden is on him to prove it should be sent down.
The allegations are almost as jarring as Jordan's boyish mugshot.
Prosecutors say that Friday's killing of 26-year-old Kenzie Marie Houk, who lived with Jordan in a New Beaver farmhouse, was premeditated. After shooting the sleeping woman in the back of the head, police said, the fifth-grader got on the bus and went to school.
There is precedent in Pennsylvania for trying a child this young for murder.
On March 6, 1989, Cameron Kocher, 9, of Kresgeville, Monroe County, took a rifle from his father's gun cabinet, loaded it and fired it out of a window, killing a 7-year-old girl on a snowmobile. He later pleaded guilty in adult court to involuntary manslaughter and was placed on probation until he was 21.
But Patrick Griffin, senior research associate at the NCJJ, said child killers are so rare that the system doesn't account for them well.
"It's kind of a safety valve of the juvenile system, [not] handling offenses that are too serious," Mr. Griffin said. "Murder was way beyond the pale. But they weren't thinking about an 11-year-old."
State Rep. Don Walko, D-North Side, chair of the judicial subcommittee on courts, said he intends to use the subcommittee to address the issue of juveniles charged as adults.
"I believe we should look at this situation and balance out the need to punish adult crime with adult punishment, and balance that with the reality of, my God, an 11-year-old," Mr. Walko said. "To me that was flabbergasting."
Mr. Walko said he had been thinking of bringing this up before Ms. Houk's killing, and one of the issues to address will be the all-or-nothing nature of juvenile or adult prosecutions.
The juvenile system in Pennsylvania can't maintain control after the juvenile turns 21, whereas an adult murder conviction can mean decades -- or life -- in a state prison.
NCJJ statistics say 25 states allow for a third option, the hybrid juvenile-adult sentence. For a particularly serious crime, a juvenile can be sentenced to serve until a certain age in a juvenile facility, then move to state prison for a period of time, if warranted.
Though Pennsylvania does not have such an option, Mr. Griffin noted that it is one of the most flexible states in the country in giving judges leeway to decide whether the case proceeds in juvenile or adult court. In many states, there's a firm cutoff age for certain crimes.
"This may seem like the wrong way to start out the case, but there will be an opportunity to consider the individual circumstances of the kid," Mr. Griffin said of Jordan.
"Probably they will be able to work it out without having a big contentious hearing."
Jordan's preliminary hearing was rescheduled yesterday for March 24, and Mr. Elisco said a bond hearing and a hearing to determine whether the case is sent to juvenile court will come sometime after that.
Another potential option for Jordan, Judge Clark said, would be a mental health placement. If a doctor determines that the child needs serious treatment, Jordan could be housed in a mental hospital.
But the idea of treating an 11-year-old in the same manner as a 31-year-old has struck many observers as absurd.
"He probably hasn't had the sex talk yet," said Melissa Sickmund, chief of systems research at the NCJJ. "He remembers learning how to tie his shoes -- and being proud of it. His big worries in a day are so unlike that of an adult."
First Published February 26, 2009 12:00 am