HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania’s highest court on Wednesday overturned the conviction of a then-11-year-old boy in the 2009 shotgun slaying of his father’s pregnant fiancée, saying prosecutors had not provided enough evidence to support it.
The state Supreme Court’s 5-0 ruling clears Jordan Brown of wrongdoing, his lawyers said, in the slaying of 26-year-old Kenzie Houk, who was eight months pregnant when she was found dead in the family’s rural western Pennsylvania farmhouse.
It reversed a finding by a juvenile court judge in Lawrence County, upheld by a state appellate court, that Brown was guilty of first-degree murder and homicide of an unborn child.
Justices attacked prosecutors’ circumstantial evidence as insufficient, saying among other things that trial testimony pointing to a shotgun in Brown’s bedroom as the murder weapon “supported an equally reasonable conclusion” that it wasn’t the murder weapon.
There otherwise was no eyewitness, DNA or fingerprint evidence pointing to Brown and no blood or biological material from Houk on Brown’s clothing, the court said.
Houk was found lying in bed in a pool of blood with a shotgun blast to the back of her head, according to court papers. Brown, now 20, was tried as a juvenile after his lawyers fought a judge’s original decision to try him as an adult.
A lawyer for Brown, Kate Burdick, said Brown — referred to in court papers as J.B. — has maintained his innocence since the murder and has now received “long overdue justice.”
“While we can’t give J.B. his childhood back, we are glad the Supreme Court has cleared his name so that he can move forward with a productive life,” Burdick said.
The state attorney general’s office, which was handling the appeal, declined comment. Houk’s father, Jack Houk, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that his wife was in shock and crying and dismissed the idea that anyone else could be responsible.
“We’re going through hell,” Houk told the newspaper.
Burdick would not discuss Brown’s whereabouts, only saying that he was not in custody and that he had met all his treatment goals. In 2016, a judge put Brown on probation and in the custody of an uncle, who lives in Ohio.
Burdick said charging Brown again for the same crime would violate the “double jeopardy” clause of the U.S. Constitution that prohibits trying someone twice for the same crime. Brown’s probation under juvenile court would have lasted just a few more weeks until he turns 21.
Brown’s lawyers have battled the case to the Supreme Court before, in 2014 winning an order granting them a new chance to argue there was insufficient evidence to convict him.
Winning that decision and then a high court reversal is “extraordinarily rare,” said Stephen Colafella, a lawyer for Brown.
Houk’s daughters — ages 4 and 7 at the time of their mother’s death — went to live with their grandparents.
On the day of the murder, Chris Brown, Jordan’s father, had already gone to work, leaving Houk with the three children before Jordan Brown and the older daughter left to catch the school bus.
The younger daughter found her mom’s body, telling a member of a tree service crew that had arrived to finish collecting firewood they had cut the previous day from a wooded area in front of the house.
The court’s decision said state police searched for Houk’s ex-boyfriend because he had a history of making threats of violence against her. Houk, her parents, sister and brother-in-law had permanent restraining orders against him, court papers said.
Two weeks before Houk’s murder, her ex-boyfriend had received paternity test results showing that Houk’s youngest daughter was not his biological daughter. The night before her murder, he confronted her parents in a nightclub where he had gone to pick up food, resulting in his ejection from the club, court papers say.
On his way out the door to the school bus, Jordan Brown noticed a black pickup truck parked by the garage that resembled one belonging to Houk’s ex-boyfriend, he told police.
However, the ex-boyfriend was excluded as a suspect, court papers say.
Prosecutors had argued that Brown felt left out of the family and cited other pieces of circumstantial evidence, including traces of gunshot residue on Brown’s clothing and a newly spent shell casing found along the driveway where he walked to the bus.