NEW CASTLE – Jordan Brown, charged at age 11 with killing his father’s pregnant fiancee, is now fighting back against the legal system that jailed him.
Brown, who initially was charged as an adult in the Feb. 20, 2009, shooting in New Beaver of 26-year-old Kenzie Houk, had been in custody since the day after incident until he was released in June 2016 on probation. Brown ultimately was tried as a juvenile and found delinquent, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned that ruling in July 2018.
Brown, now nearly 23, is alleging in a federal court complaint filed Wednesday that state police investigators manipulated interviews, evidence and procedures to support his conviction.
“Jordan was exonerated from the crimes he was accused of committing,” Alec B. Wright, an attorney with the Pittsburgh-based Timothy P. O’Brien law firm representing Brown, told The News. “Once that exoneration occurs, he had the ability based on the exoneration to see if there were civil rights violations.”
The lawsuit alleges now-retired Pennsylvania State Police troopers Janice Wilson, Jeffrey Martin, Robert McGraw, Troy Steinhauser and commissioner Frank Pawlowski failed to investigate Houk’s former boyfriend. The lawsuit paints that man as an abusive ex who moved to within 10 miles of the rental house Houk was staying at with her fiance Chris Brown — Jordan’s father — and two daughters.
Houk, who died of a 20-gauge gunshot wound from point-blank range to the back of the head, was just weeks away from giving birth to a baby fathered by Chris Brown. The lawsuit notes Chris Brown was at work around 7 a.m. at Steelite while Jordan Brown and Houk’s oldest daughter left the house to wait for the school bus around 8:12 a.m. A tree service crew finishing up a job from the previous day was on the property and one worker was alerted to Houk’s youngest daughter, then four years old, crying at the front door sometime after 9:30 a.m.
First responders were on scene just after 10 a.m. and then-Lawrence County Coroner Russell S. Noga and deputy coroner Rich “R.J.” Johnson pronounced Houk dead around 10:30 a.m. Hours later, Jordan Brown was taken into police custody and charged as an adult for two counts of homicide. His case garnered national and worldwide headlines.
“I know every word on every page of every document that was ever used in Jordan’s criminal proceedings,” Wright said. “When we first learned about Jordan’s case and his exoneration, what I remember that never left my mind was the mugshot — the innocent look of a mugshot of a crying 11-year-old child.”
Wright continued, “We were just privileged enough to get the phone call to represent Jordan in this case.”
According to the lawsuit, Houk and her former boyfriend had lived together in North Carolina. Houk had court-issued protection from abuse orders against the man after he threatened to kill her in 2006, the lawsuit claims, adding that the ex had learned seven days before Houk’s death that he was not the father of Houk’s youngest daughter.
On Feb. 19, 2009, the former boyfriend had a run-in with Houk’s parents at a community club where he went to pick up food, resulting in his ejection from the club, according to the lawsuit. When he was questioned by state police about his whereabouts the next day, he provided an alibi but interviews were not recorded, the lawsuit says.
Wright, in the lawsuit, alleges that state police investigators failed to follow established protocols when interviewing children, including recording interviews. Investigators interviewed Houk’s oldest daughter, the court papers say, but only recorded the fourth interview. In her first interview, the girl said she did not hear or see anything unusual, according to the lawsuit. In a later interview, after investigators told her grandparents they believed Jordan Brown killed Kenzie Houk, the girl said she saw him with guns that morning and heard a bang.
In another allegation, the lawsuit claims mischaracterizations in police interviews.
The lawsuit requests compensatory damages for emotional and mental harm; lost wages and income, as well as loss of future wages and income; the value of the legal services; punitive damages and attorney’s fees and costs.
Jordan Brown told the Associated Press on Wednesday he hopes a court victory would provide compensation for his father for having to pay child support, taxes, lawyer fees and expenses to travel more than 100 miles round-trip when he was held in an Erie County facility.
“I feel if we win the lawsuit it’ll shed a light of (my) innocence on people that they can’t really ignore,” Brown said. “You don’t just win a lawsuit over injustice for no reason.”
This was the second time Brown has spoken publicly, the first coming in October 2018 on ABC’s “20/20.” He and his father both have maintained Jordans’ innocence throughout the last 11 years.
Jordan Brown, who was studying computer science at an Ohio college, is now also studying criminal justice. He could pursue a career in civil rights or criminal justice defense, Wright said.
“Jordan doesn’t want those same systems to do to others what it did to him,” Wright said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.