Man convicted at 11 of pregnant stepmom’s 2009 murder exonerated of crime

A Pennsylvania man accused, and later convicted, of killing his father’s pregnant fiancée in 2009 -- when he was just 11 years old -- has been exonerated by the state Supreme Court.

Jordan Brown, now 20, was released from juvenile detention in 2016, but he and his defense team continued to argue his innocence in the Feb. 20, 2009, shotgun murder of Kenzie Marie Houk.

Houk, 26, was eight months pregnant when she was killed inside the Wampum farmhouse she shared with her two daughters, Jordan and his father, Chris Brown. Houk’s 4-year-old daughter found her body.

Investigators alleged that Jordan used a .20-gauge shotgun his father had bought him for Christmas to shoot Houk in the back of the head before boarding the school bus with Houk’s 7-year-old daughter that morning. The boy was convicted of first-degree murder and homicide of an unborn child, for which he spent seven years in juvenile detention.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled July 18 in a unanimous decision that the state had insufficient evidence to convict Jordan of murder. According to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit group that fights to exonerate wrongly convicted defendants, investigators found no DNA or fingerprint evidence that connected him to the slaying.

There was also no proof that Jordan’s shotgun was the weapon used to kill Houk.

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Credit: Lawrence County Jail

Credit: Lawrence County Jail

"In sum…all of the Commonwealth's forensic and eyewitness testimony, and all reasonable inferences derived therefrom, viewed in a light most favorable to it, was, at best, in equipoise, as it was equally consistent with two possibilities," the high court's ruling read. "First, that a person or persons unknown entered the house in which J.B.'s stepmother was sleeping and shot her to death after J.B. and his sister had left for school on the morning of February 20, 2009."

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“Second, the Commonwealth’s theory that, after J.B.’s father left for work, J.B., in full view of J.H. (Houk’s 7-year-old daughter), walked upstairs and retrieved a .20 gauge shotgun from his bedroom, walked back downstairs, retrieved a shotgun shell from a box of shells located in an armoire in the victim’s bedroom on which the television set she was watching was located, shot the victim in the back of the head as she lay on the bed facing that television, took the shotgun back upstairs and returned it to its former position -- after wiping it clean of any physical evidence caused by the shooting -- then caught the school bus with J.H., and went to school as if it were any other normal morning.”

The court's ruling laid out the facts of the case, beginning with Jordan and his stepsister getting dressed for school the morning of the killing. The ruling pointed out that Houk's 7-year-old daughter told investigators she did not see or hear anything out of the ordinary in the house the morning her mother was killed. The children said Houk, who was lying in bed, admonished them to hurry and get dressed before they missed their bus.

The driver of the school bus who took the children to school also said that he saw nothing unusual about either child’s behavior as they ran to catch the bus.

A tree crew arrived to do some work at the home about 45 minutes after the children left for school, at which time a crew member noticed a screen door standing open, the court document said. A few minutes later, the workers spotted Houk’s toddler daughter in the doorway, crying.

When the owner of the tree service approached the doorway, the little girl told him her mother was dead. The man called 911 and kept the girl occupied while awaiting help.

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While troopers worked the crime scene, other investigators went to the school to talk to Jordan and Houk’s daughter. Jordan told the troopers he did not see anyone out of the ordinary near the house, but said he saw a black pickup truck near the house as he and his stepsister caught the school bus.

Read the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of Jordan Brown below.

An ex-boyfriend of Houk’s owned a similar truck and had allegedly made threats against her in the past, but investigators cleared him of the crime, the court ruling said.

At the house, troopers found Jordan’s shotgun, which they said smelled of gunpowder as though it had recently been fired. When questioned, the boy told detectives he and his father had been shooting the gun about a month before the homicide.

His father, Chris Brown, also said that he and his son participated in a turkey shoot less than a week before Houk was killed.

The court ruling pointed out that, while prosecutors argued that Jordan had gunshot residue on the clothes he wore the day of the shooting, expert testimony indicated that there was no way to know how long the residue, which consisted of two small particles on the boy’s shirt and pants, had been there.

In addition, the blast that killed Houk was fired from within inches of the back of her head, but no blood or tissue was found on Jordan’s shotgun.

The court found the Commonwealth’s evidence insufficient to overcome Jordan’s presumption of innocence and reversed his conviction.

In a news conference held July 23 and recorded by multiple local media outlets, Brown called the years since Houk's slaying and his son's arrest a "long road."

He said it has been good to have his son home for the past couple of years.

"But to have the ability to put this behind us and move on, that was our main goal," Brown said.

He talked about the mixed emotions brought up by the court ruling.

“It was kind of bittersweet, so to speak,” Brown said. “Overwhelmed with joy, but still full of sorrow knowing that we really won’t have closure with our loss.”

Besides the loss of his fiancée and their unborn child, Brown said that his son also lost his childhood.

"Can you get that back? That's the question," he said. "I think the answer, in short, is 'no.' But I think what matters most is moving on from this day forward and what you do from this day on."

Brown said Jordan has not had any issues since being home, but pointed out that there had also been no reports of behavioral or psychological issues while his son was incarcerated in the juvenile justice system. Jordan graduated from high school with a 3.9 GPA and is doing well in college, where he is studying computer science.

“We’re just interested to see what life brings down the road in the future for him,” Brown said.

Dennis Elisco, the attorney who represented Jordan throughout his time in the criminal justice system, said during the news conference that while the ultimate outcome was the “just, fair and long, long overdue” one for his client, he does not understand how or why the real killer has been allowed to go without repercussions for so long.

Brown agreed.

"It's not our job to investigate, and there are people involved in this case that are sworn to investigate," Brown said. "I would just hope that they would do that. I would hope they would reopen the case and pursue the actual murderer who, by the way, has been walking the streets for nine years."

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