Media: We have right to see Pa. boy's murder trial

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Posted: Jan 10, 2012 5:07 PM
Media: We have right to see Pa. boy's murder trial

Attorneys for three newspapers asked an appeals panel Tuesday to open the juvenile court trial of a boy who was just 11 when he was charged with killing his father's pregnant fiancee with a shotgun blast.

But Jordan Brown's attorney wants the same three-judge Superior Court panel to find that Lawrence County Judge John Hodge didn't abuse his discretion last year under a law that allows judges to close trials for juveniles under 12.

Attorneys for the New Castle News, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review argued that the media and general public have a constitutional right to attend the proceeding for Brown, who's now 14.

"The juvenile in this instance has been charged with the most heinous of crimes," Post-Gazette attorney Frederick Frank said. "What is before the court is not just an ordinary juvenile case."

State police say Brown hid his youth-model .20-gauge shotgun under a blanket, then fired, killing 26-year-old Kenzie Houk, as she lay in bed at their Wampum home on Feb. 20, 2009. Houk was 8 1/2 months pregnant; her unborn child died from a resulting lack of oxygen.

At issue Tuesday was whether Hodge abused his discretion to close the trial as well as the conflict between that law and another Pennsylvania statute, which requires anyone 10 or older to be charged with murder as an adult, such as in Brown's case. Authorities said the killing occurred just before Brown walked to a school bus stop near the rural farmhouse where he lived with his father, Houk and Houk's two young daughters.

Houk's family has said they believe the boy killed Houk because he was jealous of the child she was carrying and was concerned he'd receive less attention from his father as a result.

Because he was charged as an adult, the media was free to publish Brown's name, and Brown's father and then-defense attorney welcomed such publicity. His father, Christopher Brown, even appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America" to declare Jordan was not only "too young" to appreciate the magnitude of the crime but also was simply innocent.

Jordan Brown and his attorneys then had the burden of moving the case to juvenile court, which can incarcerate or supervise Jordan only until he's 21. They would have to prove that Brown's chances for rehabilitation would be better there than in adult court, where Jordan faced life in prison if convicted. Another Lawrence County judge at first refused to move the case to juvenile court but relented last year after the defense filed an appeal.

Once the case moved to juvenile court, it became subject to a second state law at the center of Tuesday's arguments that requires murder cases of juveniles 12 and older to remain open but gives judges discretion to close the trials of defendants younger than that when they were charged.

All three newspaper attorneys argued that closing the juvenile trial is pointless, given that Brown's name, age and details of the case have already been reported. They also say the facts of the case make it too compelling for the public not to know what ultimately happens to Brown, which would remain secret if the trial is closed.

But defense attorney Dennis Elisco argued that shouldn't matter because the primary goal of juvenile court is rehabilitation and, if Jordan is found delinquent _ the juvenile court equivalent of guilty _ then whatever punishment he receives will be reviewed in court every six months and will likely involve psychiatric and other testimony that could be compromised if the case is opened to the public.

Deputy Attorney General James Barber, whose office is prosecuting Brown, said Houk's family wants the trial to be open, and because they're related to the murder victim, he is responsible for presenting and defending their views.

The Houk family is "100 percent with the media. That's why we want you in there (at trial) to know what he's all about," Kenzie's father, Jack Houk, said outside court, referring to Jordan.

At the same time, Barber said, the attorney general is also responsible for defending and upholding state laws _ including the one that allowed Hodge to order the trial closed.

Although the attorney general's office had argued the trial should remain open, Barber told the appeals panel he believed the judge "properly exercised his discretion" in closing it.

A decision on the case isn't expected for weeks or months.