Thursday, April 29, 2010

When is an Eleven Year Old an Adult?

Jordan Brown, an eleven-year-old boy, got up one morning, had his breakfast, picked up the shotgun his father gave him for Christmas, and shot his sleeping, pregnant, soon-to-be step-mother in the back of the head, killing her and her unborn child.

Then the boy and the woman's seven-year-old daughter boarded a school bus together. The girl asked Jordan what the loud noise had been. He told her it was nothing.

It sounds almost incredible, but prosecutors in Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, believe it happened in the death of Kenzie Marie Houk.

At school that day, no one noticed Jordan Brown exhibiting any unusual behavior. He was arrested later in the day, but has maintained the he didn't do it. It makes one shiver to think that a child could be guilty of such a cold-blooded act of violence. But his cool demeanor could, of course, simply be because he is innocent.

Whether Jordan Brown is guilty of premeditated murder is something that the courts will determine. But what has already been decided is that this pre-teen will be tried as an adult.

As an eleven year old, Jordan could have been tried as a juvenile. If he was found to have been the one who killed Houk, he would be found "delinquent," not "guilty" as is the case in adult court. He would be sent to a juvenile facility whose goal would be to rehabilitate him rather than to punish him. He could be held no longer than his twenty-first birthday, when he would be released, whether he was rehabilitated or not.

Pennsylvania law allows an offender as young as age ten to be charged as an adult if the circumstances of the crime warrant. In this case, the prosecutor believed he had no choice but to request that the court charge Jordan as an adult. The act, according to the prosecutor, was premeditated. Jordan allegedly brought his youth-sized shotgun down from his upstairs bedroom that morning. When the seven-year-old noticed it, he went back upstairs and concealed it under a blue blanket when he returned downstairs. A blue blanket with a shotgun hole in it was found near the body in a downstairs bedroom. If true, this behavior would meet any standard for premeditation.

Jordan's father has argued passionately that his son is not guilty, and should be tried as a juvenile, allowing the father to secure his release on bond. The judge, however, agreed with the prosecution. Jordan Brown, now twelve, will stand trial as an adult.

As a result of this ruling, Jordan Brown can be held in the county jail with adult offenders until his trial. If he is found guilty of first-degree murder, he would be sent to an adult prison with more adult offenders where he would spend the rest of his life without possibility of parole. He could not, however, be sentenced to death. While Pennsylvania does provide for the death penalty in such cases, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that execution of offenders under the age of sixteen constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment.

The prosecutor argued that staying in a juvenile facility until he was twenty-one would not provide sufficient time to rehabilitate Jordan Brown. Some other observers say Jordan is just plain evil, suggesting he is a sociopath for whom there is no hope. His father says he is an "all-American boy" who is innocent and does not understand what is happening to him.

What troubles many about such cases is that children the age of Jordan Brown might not, and some would say cannot, have the intellectual and emotional maturity to understand the consequences of their actions. They do not yet comprehend death, and so cannot comprehend the gravity of shooting someone in the head.

I remember a story that made the news several years ago about two young brothers, about twelve and fourteen years old if memory serves, who were hunting together. Each had a shotgun, and they were walking single file through the woods, with the elder brother in the lead. As they trudged along, the younger boy decided it would be funny to shoot the hat off his brother's head, as he had seen in cartoons on television. Not surprisingly, the older brother died instantly. There was no evil intent in that case. Clearly this was a child exercising childish judgment without understanding the probability of lethal consequences of his actions. But I wonder if he would ever be able to forgive himself.

Could Jordan fully comprehend how serious his actions were, or did he think shooting Houk was somehow an acceptable expression of anger? Could he appreciate how permanent death is, let alone how horrific?

When is an eleven year old an adult?

What do you think? Should the punishment fit the crime or the criminal?


  1. A. What kind of message are you giving a child when you buy him a real gun? That it's just another guy "toy"?
    B. If a "corrections" facility cannot "rehabilitate" a juvenile after 10 YEARS, maybe there is something wrong with the institution. But no one ever asks that question.
    C. Sometimes "tough love" just make things worse.
    D. This is a prosecutor who believes that justice is a euphamism for revenge.
    E. Another case of rush to judgement or trail by media. Seems to me it speaks volumes that the father is willing to stand by his son.

  2. All good points, Jo.

    Hunting is an important part of the rural culture of Pennsylvania. But what, if any, responsibility might a parent have when he gives a young child a weapon, and does not keep it locked up when they are not using it together? I wonder if the father's belief in his son's innocence is fueled by his own guilt at having allowed Jordan access to his firearm without supervision.

    Among adult offenders, recidivism rates are high. To send a child to an adult facility, even on a lesser charge than first-degree murder, nearly guarantees him a life of serial incarceration. Does the prosecutor's stated fear that Jordan cannot be rehabilitated by the age of twenty-one yield a result that he can never be rehabilitated?

  3. Is the District Attorney up for reelection and afraid of seeming weak on crime? Hmmm?