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February 23, 2009

Shotgun killing by juvenile in PA raising lots of legal and other challenges

Brown0223_160 The latest shocking killing by a very young juvenile offender, this one in Pennsylvania, is creating legal and other difficulties for the prosecutor who has to figure out to do with a unique type of offender.  These challenges are noted in local articles: from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review here, " DA not yet sure how to try boy accused of murder"; from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette here, "Law ties DA's hands over jailing of juvenile in homicide."  Here are excerpts from the latter article, which highlights how hard cases make mandatory sentencing laws especially problematic for everyone involved in these cases:

It's a case that cries for the wisdom of Solomon. On one hand, a pregnant mother of two was fatally shot in the back of the head and left to be found by her frightened 4-year-old who was alone in the house.  On the other hand, an 11-year-old boy is accused of the horror, caught in limbo between adult and juvenile courts, sitting in isolation in a county lockup with little more than a cot, a sink and a commode for company.

"Yeah, it's enough to make me throw up," said Lawrence County District Attorney John Bongivengo, prosecutor of the child who, in the eyes of the law, is an adult facing the most serious criminal charge on the books: two counts of premeditated homicide....  The subject has been keeping the district attorney up at night as he struggles to discern the right way to proceed. "I don't think I've slept more than three hours since Friday," he said.

That's the day when Jordan Brown, a fifth-grader from New Beaver, Lawrence County, allegedly killed his father's pregnant girlfriend, Kenzie Marie Houk, 26. Police say he used the child-sized 20-gauge hunting shotgun his father, Chris, had given him for Christmas.  Ms. Houk, who was due to deliver a son in a couple of weeks, was shot while lying on her bed in the family's two-story farmhouse near New Castle.  Her body was found by her 4-year-old daughter, Adalynn.

Mr. Bongivengo described the killing as "premeditated and cold-blooded."  He said Jordan shot his future stepmother, put the shotgun back in his bedroom, got rid of the spent shell casing and rode the bus to Mohawk Elementary School with Ms. Houk's 7-year-old daughter, Jenessa.  Jordan's father was at work at a local factory at the time of the killing.

By early Saturday, Jordan had been arrested and charged with two counts of homicide, including the killing of an unborn child.  And Mr. Bongivengo was beginning what he expects to be one of the most difficult cases he'll ever face. "I'm really struggling with this," said the district attorney, a 38-year-old father of a nearly 9-year-old son and twin 6-year-old boys. "I can't help but pull on my experience as a father here. I don't like thinking of this boy in jail, either. But, I also have to be a DA," he said. Mr. Bongivengo is in his fourth year as the county's chief prosecutor.

The dilemma is what to do with a child who has been deemed an adult. If he had his druthers, Mr. Bongivengo said, he would see the state Legislature change the law that employs what's known as a "direct transfer," which automatically requires children 10 and older to be charged immediately as adults if they are suspected of homicide. "The law puts us in the position of dealing with a child who must be treated as an adult," he explained. "I feel like I'm short on options."

February 23, 2009 at 10:10 AM | Permalink


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Perhaps, this kid has simply ruined his life, and he should be sentenced to life imprisonment. That's a harsh thing to say, but, equally harsh is the risk imposed on others for letting him go.

In a perfect world, he would do a significant amount of time and have the chance for freedom if he has been rehabilitated. Unfortunately, it's difficult to trust that his rehabilitation would truly be a condition precedent.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 23, 2009 12:47:45 PM

"child-sized 20-gauge hunting shotgun"

That phrase makes me shiver.

Posted by: NYC Lawyer | Feb 23, 2009 2:11:16 PM

In the first place, contrary to popular belief, you cannot wiggle your nose and make a child an adult! America is severely off-track in the "law" department. We have made huge mistakes over the past 10 years. We have a Sex Offender Registry (which I call a white elephant) which includes everyone from a teen having consensual sex to a man urinating behind a bush. We have sting operations going on all across the country which have destroyed the faith and trust we all once had in law enforcement because TRUTH is no longer an asset in arrests. We arrest adults for making cigarettes and alcohol available to under age individuals but when they shoot someone with "Daddy's" weapon (which he should be responsible for) we arrest the child and POOF! he/she is an adult. There is much work to be done and God knows I do not have all the answers but I am a Veteran of the USAF and the erosion of law in America, my America sickens me!

Posted by: Suzanne | Feb 24, 2009 12:07:42 PM

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