Jordan Brown: 11-year-old wrongfully jailed for killing father's pregnant fiancee sues for 'stolen childhood'
NEW CASTLE, PENNSYLVANIA: Jordan Brown was just 11-years-old when he was arrested and charged for the death of his father's heavily-pregnant fiancee. He went on to spend more than seven years in custody, repeatedly claiming his innocence, before he was cleared of the accusations. He is now suing the system for what his lawyers described as a "stolen childhood".
Kenzie Houk, 26, was shot in the back of the neck on February 20, 2009, as she slept in the family's farmhouse near New Castle that she shared with Brown, his father and her two young daughters. Eight-months-pregnant at the time, both she and her unborn son died as a result of the attack.
The next day, state police arrested Brown, who was a fifth-grader at the time. The state Attorney General said Houk had been killed by a youth-model Harrington & Richardson 20-gauge shotgun that Brown had received as a Christmas gift from his father, with Pennsylvania State Police reporting finding a spent shotgun shell near the path the 11-year-old walked to get to his school bus the morning of her murder. Investigators also cited evidence that included gunshot residue on his clothing and statements from Houk's seven-year-old daughter Jenessa, and announced Brown would be charged as an adult in the crime. If convicted, he faced life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The move was a controversial one at the time, with Amnesty International opposing the effort to try him as an adult and arguing that the sentence he faced was a violation of international law. Brown spent the next three years in a juvenile detention facility in Erie while the Pennsylvania courts deliberated his status.
On April 13, 2012, he was tried as a juvenile and convicted being delinquent, which is effectively a guilty verdict. It would be a conviction that would take more than six years to be overturned.
In 2018, the state's Supreme Court reversed the lower court's opinion in a 5-0 decision and determined that the evidence in the case pointing to Brown as the culprit could just as easily have been used to implicate another unknown assailant and was insufficient to find him culpable beyond a reasonable doubt.
The Supreme Court pointed out that no DNA or fingerprint evidence was linking Brown to the killing, and that the evidence investigators did have did not prove the shotgun they seized from his home was the murder weapon.
In an interview with ABC's "20/20" after the Supreme Court's decision, Brown had shared that, when he was arrested, he did not even understand the crime of which he was being accused. "They put me in the back of the car and they took me to the police barracks. And I was in there. And then they took me straight to the county jail," he recalled of the day he was taken into custody. "I didn’t understand what was happening. I didn’t know where I was at, like, what was going on or anything."
Now, he's seeking compensation for a childhood that he will never get back. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Brown, now 22, had filed a federal lawsuit against a former Pennsylvania State Police commissioner and four former troopers involved in his case. In the lawsuit, Brown claimed these law enforcement officials violated his constitutional rights, fabricated reports and manufactured evidence against him, which culminated in a "falsified criminal narrative that stole his entire childhood," violated internal protocols for interviewing child witnesses in order to guide and influence the victim's children into making incriminating statements about him and "bent other information to a nefarious purpose."
Alec Wright, one of Brown’s lawyers, said the past decade represented his "stolen childhood" and that if he wins the case, a jury will be posed with a "million-dollar" question that they will have to answer: How much is a childhood really worth? "How do you put a value on, for most of us, the only opportunity we get to be truly free, to find ourselves, to not have the stressors of adulthood, the ability to play in the dirt and get muddy and get food on your clothes and nobody cares, to make mistakes?" he said. "How do you compensate the loss of that?"
"This is Jordan’s only opportunity to be compensated for his being wrongfully convicted for the entirety of his childhood," he added.
Debbie Houk, the victim's mother, said she was infuriated when she learned about Brown's lawsuit and that she views it as nothing but a cash grab. "It’s just sickening to think that he should sue the police now," she said. "I think that’s awful; that makes me sick." She said she and her husband, Jack, were "200% sure" that it was Brown who killed their daughter. "They want to blame someone else," she claimed. "They’re just grabbing at straws."