How Young Is Too Young to Face Life in Prison?

Boy charged with committing murder at age 11 fuels debate on juvenile justice.

March 10, 2010, 4:15 PM

March 11, 2010— -- The father of a 12-year-old Pennsylvania boy charged last year with murder says his son is "just an all-around good kid" who doesn't deserve to face life in prison.

A judge will soon decide whether or not Jordan Brown should be tried as an adult for the murder of his soon-to-be stepmother, and face a possible life sentence. The case is at the crux of a national debate on juvenile justice, playing out in a small-town courthouse.

Before his arrest, Jordan was the quarterback of the Pee Wee football team and a good student. His dad says he was "big into sports" with "a lot of friends in school."

But on Feb. 20, 2009, his father's fiancée, Kenzie Houk, 26, was found dead, shot in the head in the family's rural farmhouse in Western Pennsylvania. She was eight-and-a-half months pregnant at the time.

Prosecutors quickly built a case against Jordan, then 11, accusing him of using his shotgun -- a hunting gift from his dad -- to fire one fatal bullet before getting on the bus for elementary school. Within 24 hours, the fifth-grader was arrested for murder.

When Chris Brown saw his son being taken away by police, the boy was "scared, frightened, [and] crying."

"Jordan's never been away from me for any length of time since he was born," he recalled thinking. "He was terrified, terrified."

Brown said his son "looked like a baby" when he was incarcerated. "He looked like a baby in an orange jumpsuit in an adult jail."

Brown continues to proclaim his son's innocence. But the family of Houk has reportedly described Jordan as angry and profoundly jealous of the fact that the new woman in his father's life was about to have a son, to be named Chris after his dad.

Jordan was charged with two counts of homicide. Chris Brown believes his son comprehends what he stands accused of, "but he doesn't appreciate the magnitude of it. He's simply too young."

Too young, many argue, to face the prospect of an adult sentence. Kids charged with murder in Pennsylvania are automatically considered adults and only a judge's decision can move the trial to junvenile court.

If convicted, the two routes have radically different sentences, either life in prison without parole, or juvenile detention and freedom with no record at age 21.

Due to tough-on-crime laws, Pennsylvania has more juveniles sentenced to life in prison without parole than any other state.

Click HERE to see juvenile sentencing statistics in other states.

"I'm not sure that we think they should be treated like adults," said Doug Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University. "What I think it is, is what they've done is so heinous, we're troubled with the idea of treating them just like they are a kid."

And yet, his dad argues that Jordan is just that: a kid, one who enjoys Harry Potter and, until recently, wasn't completely sure if Santa exists. What's more, children's brains, according to recent research, are not fully developed, which affects risk-taking and impulse control. It's that kind of research that influenced a Supreme Court case banning the death penalty for juveniles in 2005.

"In the juvenile vs. adult system, it is the individual and whether that person is amenable to juvenile rehabilitation," said Dennis Elisco, Jordan's defense attorney. "And in Jordan's case, he's clearly amenable to juvenile rehabilitation, because of his lack of history of any problems, any juvenile delinquency."

If tried in adult court and found guilty, Jordan would become the youngest person in U.S. history to face life in prison without parole.

Whether or not Jordan gets a shot at rehabilitation is up to the judge. If the judge rules that Jordan should be tried as a juvenile, his father said he would be "obviously happy that that's the outcome. But then, you know, we still have to prove his innocence at the trial."

Jordan has spent roughly a year in juvenile detention.

His father, who is no longer able to work in construction, has drained his life savings, spending $900 a month on gas to make the daily four-hour round trip to visit his son.

"[We] play games, play cards, put together puzzles," Brown said. "We've probably done 35, 40 puzzles over the past year."

Brown has already lost so much: his fiancée, his unborn child, his home, and now perhaps his son, for life. He knows that he should have a wife and kids, but instead, he is alone.

When asked how he keeps his spirits up, he said, "I have no choice. I have to stay strong for my son."

One community member said it's inconceivable that Jordan could be charged as an adult.

Chris Lindsay's son played football with Jordan, and Lindsay knew Jordan and Chris Brown well.

He told "Good Morning America" that the Brown family was "very happy" and that Jordan was looking forward to the baby's birth.

"Jordan had actually commented … he was very much looking forward to the birth of his brother," Lindsay said.

Lindsay said Jordan was a good child who fit in well.

"I mean, he's probably one of the best behaved children I've ever met in my life, very respectful," he said.

In an attempt to build awareness about the case, Jordan's supporters have launched a Web site to maintain the boy's innocence and solicit contributions to pay for his defense.

Click here to return to the "Good Morning America" Web site.

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