Pa. court closes boy's trial in pregnant killing

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Posted: Feb 22, 2012 5:00 PM
Pa. court closes boy's trial in pregnant killing

A juvenile court trial for a boy who was 11 when he was accused of grabbing a shotgun and killing his father's pregnant fiancee and unborn son will remain closed to the public despite appeals by three newspapers, the state Superior Court ruled Wednesday.

The court heard arguments last month about whether to open the trial of Jordan Brown, who's now 14. The court's opinion by Judge Jacqueline Shogun concluded that "denial of public access to the juvenile proceedings at hand serves an important government interest" because "under the facts of the case, there is no alternative short of closure of the juvenile court proceedings which will adequately serve the privacy interests of J.B."

The New Castle News, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review had sought to open the yet-to-be scheduled trial, in part, because Brown's name and the crimes of which he's accused have been widely reported.

The western Pennsylvania newspapers also argued that because the public already knows the allegations and the boy's identity and has heard claims by his father that he's innocent, it should also learn whether authorities really have solved the Feb. 20, 2009, shotgun slaying of 26-year-old Kenzie Houk and her unborn son, who died of oxygen deprivation.

"We continue to believe that there should be public access to this case which involves significant issues involving the criminal and juvenile justice system in the Commonwealth," Post-Gazette attorney Frederick Frank said in statement.

He didn't say whether the newspaper would appeal.

State law required Brown, of Wampum, a rural town 40 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, to be charged as an adult because homicide charges cannot originate in juvenile court. That caused the details of the case and Brown's name to be widely reported before his attorneys persuaded a Lawrence County judge to move the case to juvenile court, where another judge, John Hodge, then closed the upcoming trial to the public.

Brown's juvenile court trial has been delayed by the newspaper appeals. Hodge's staff referred questions about scheduling to the county court administrator, who said the juvenile court will not regain jurisdiction and be able to reschedule the case until after the 30 days the newspapers now have to appeal.

Attorneys for the New Castle News and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review said they've yet to discuss with their clients whether to appeal, but they expressed disappointment with the decision.

New Castle News attorney James Manolis said: "It's an unfortunate day for the news media and their efforts to keep the public informed of heinous criminal events that occur in the community."

Tribune-Review attorney Ronald Barber said: "In past cases dealing with closed courtrooms we've had this presumption in the Pennsylvania constitution that the door is open and the party that wants to close it must come in with some proof. The Superior Court decision turns that upside down."

Brown's attorneys, who did not immediately return calls seeking comment Wednesday, are scheduled to argue before the Superior Court in Pittsburgh on March 28 a separate appeal that he should be released until trial because of the delays already incurred.

Brown has been in a juvenile detention center in Erie, about 80 miles from his home, since shortly after the killings, which occurred moments before he left to catch a school bus.

State law says juvenile court trials for certain serious felonies, including homicide, must be public if the defendant was at least 12. But judges have discretion to close trials for younger defendants to protect their privacy and other rights while under juvenile court jurisdiction, which ends when they turn 21. Brown faced up to life in prison if convicted in adult court.

Although Brown's father, Christopher Brown, proclaimed the boy's innocence on ABC's "Good Morning America" in 2010, investigators contend Houk's two younger daughters, ages 7 and 4, were the only others home when she was shot.

Lawrence County Judge Dominick Motto, who moved the case to juvenile court, conceded the evidence points to Jordan Brown but said he felt the boy stood a better chance of rehabilitation in juvenile court.