Will judge toss conviction of boy found guilty of murder at age 11?

Jordan Brown in a 2009 mugshot
AP Photo/Lawrence County Prison via Beaver County Times

NEW CASTLE, Pa. - Attorneys for Jordan Brown, a Pennsylvania boy who was convicted of killing his father's pregnant fiancee when he was 11 but who insists he is innocent, argued before a judge Thursday for the boy's conviction to be thrown out on the grounds that the evidence used to convict him at trial was insufficient.

The defense asked that Brown, now 17, be given a new trial. Lawrence County, Pa. Judge John Hodge did not immediately rule on the matter.

Dennis Elisco, one of Brown's defense attorneys, told 48 Hours' Crimesider after the hearing Thursday that the prosecution did not issue a brief in time but will be given more time to do so. The defense will then have 14 days to respond to that brief before Judge Hodge issues a ruling.

Lourdes Rosado, another one of Brown's attorneys, said the prosecution argued in court Thursday for the conviction to be upheld, saying the evidence introduced at Brown's initial trial supported the finding of guilt.

Rosado, however, says she thinks the defense's argument for an acquittal or new trial "is really strong." She says Brown and his father, Chris, who were both present for the hearing, are optimistic and "hopeful for the future."

Kenzie Houk

The hearing Thursday was the result of an appeals process that has stretched on since April 2012, when Brown was adjudicated delinquent -- the juvenile court equivalent of a guilty verdict -- in the February 20, 2009 death of his father's pregnant fiancee, 26-year-old Kenzie Houk.

Brown, at age 11, was arrested less than 24 hours after Houk was found shot to death in the Wampum, Pa. home where she lived with the boy, his father and her two young daughters. Brown was initially charged as an adult with two counts of first-degree murder. Houk's unborn child also did not survive the shooting.

The case garnered national attention -- if tried and convicted, Brown would have become the youngest person in United States history to face life in prison without the possibility of parole.

After some legal wrangling, Brown's defense attorneys successfully argued to transfer the case to juvenile court, where Judge Hodge -- the same judge now hearing arguments for an acquittal -- adjudicated him delinquent following a bench trial and ordered him to a reside in a juvenile residential treatment facility until the age of 21.

Brown and his attorneys ultimately appealed the conviction to the Pennsylvania Superior Court and in May 2013, his conviction was overturned on the grounds that "the juvenile court committed a palpable abuse of discretion in rendering a ruling that is plainly contrary to the evidence."

The prosecution then appealed the Superior Court's ruling, pushing the case up the ladder to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In December 2014, the state's high court vacated the ruling that had overturned Brown's conviction. Instead, the Supreme Court remanded the case back to juvenile court and Judge Hodge -- where Brown could argue for a new trial and/or acquittal.

Those arguments were made Thursday. Judge Hodge has several options: throw out the youth's conviction, do so and order him to have a new trial, or keep him in juvenile detention for the remainder of his sentence -- until 2018.

Brown's defense attorney Dennis Elisco told Crimesider he has some concerns that the same judge who initially found Brown delinquent is now faced with the task of determining whether the case was initially tried fairly. If Judge Hodge does find that Brown should be given a new trial, a different judge will preside over it.

Jordan Brown has always maintained his innocence, but police and prosecutors have been adamant that the boy took his 20-guage, youth-model shotgun, which he used to go hunting with his father, and killed Houk moments before he got on the bus to head to school.

Investigators suggested at trial that Brown was jealous of Houk's unborn son, who died of oxygen deprivation after she was shot execution-style. Houk was more than eight months pregnant at the time.

Brown was arrested less than 24 hours after the murder, but appellate court rulings have raised questions as to whether it was an open-and-shut case.

The evidence against Brown appears compelling, although it is mostly circumstantial.

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