Archive for February, 2014

28
Feb
14

thin spots

Alice Herz-Sommer

Alice Herz-Sommer, who at the age of 110 was probably the oldest survivor of the Holocaust, has died on February 23rd in London, surrounded by family and friends.

A Jewish pianist and music teacher from Prague, Alice was sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1943. Her husband and mother were killed in Auschwitz but Alice, along with a handful of other highly-trained musicians, was saved because she was able to perform recitals at the show camp.

“I knew that we will play,” she said. “And I was thinking: when we can play, it can’t be so terrible. The music, the beauty. Music is in the first place of art, it brings us on an island, with peace, beauty and love.”

Alice-Herz-Sommer1 crShe is the subject of a short documentary The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, which has been nominated for an Oscar.

Of her beloved son, who died accidentally when he was in his sixties, she said: “Five years ago he was visiting Israel for a concert tour and the day after the last concert, he came back and didn’t feel well. His wife took him to hospital. It was a heart attack. They gave him anesthesia and he didn’t wake up.” At least, she said, he never knew what it was like to grow old.

“I was lucky to be born with a very extraordinary temperament. I am optimistic. I know everything is half good and half bad, me as well, I know about the best things I look at the good things. Everywhere is good and bad.” The artist, who famously said she bore no grudges and saw her life as a wonderful gift, said that there is beauty everywhere, if you know where to look.

This reminds me of the Celtic idea of “thin spots”: places or times of the year where the veil which separates the material and spiritual worlds is thinnest and most permeable. It seems to me that Herz-Sommer discovered one of the most useful skills that one can have for surviving our material world: the ability to look beyond the obvious and see the spiritual meaning in all things, even the ugly.

I am lucky enough to be living in a physical place where making this connection is easy; Herz-Sommer was extraordinary, indeed, for being able to see this relationship everywhere.

One of my favorite runes is Gebo, signified by the runeform “X”, which literally means “gift” or “generosity” but represents the intersection of heaven and earth. Alice Herz-Sommer’s example and great contribution to us all teaches us that for the truly developed great soul, “X” marks all spots.

rune gebo 1

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Groove of the Day

Listen to Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers performing “X Marks the Spot”

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27
Feb
14

green dolphin street

green dolphin street 6

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Groove of the Day

Listen to Harry Connick, Jr. performing “On Green Dolphin Street”

26
Feb
14

no compassion

tree huggerA comment came across recently from a reader in Scotland that was very telling. After first explaining that she was not a bleeding-heart tree-hugger, she expressed her dismay at the treatment of the US courts of Paul Henry Gingerich and other children who have run afoul of the law. She then explained that she felt comfortable expressing herself here because “this is the only website I have found dealing with the case that doesn’t degenerate into a slagging match.”

Thank you, UKscot, for your confidence that you won’t suffer personal attacks here for bringing us your views. It is indisputable that most readers of the Wandervogel Diary share opinions which are very similar to yours; but even if you were to express a minority opinion, it is my confident expectation that your views would receive a respectful hearing.

This website is no stranger to controversy. In the early days of the Jordan Brown case, we received a few comments from members of the Houk camp who thought that they could get us to back down or change course as a result of their bullying tactics, but it obviously didn’t work. Yet they were respectfully heard with the correct expectation that their own words would eventually expose them as the manipulators of perception that they were and are. Now the implausibility of their interpretation of reality is playing itself out and our view is becoming the majority view as the people of New Castle are belatedly coming to their senses.

It is my sincerest hope that this website will have a hand in the transformation of America into a more compassionate society… but I realize we have a long way to go. It is almost as if Americans are afraid to feel very deeply not only about the punishments that we mete out to kids, but to the suffering of our fellow human beings. Americans have a peculiar capacity to justify an incredible amount of human suffering based on fundamentalist values of morality that bear no relation to reality as most people experience it.

pain management 2Case in point: I am following the case of a friend who is seeking to get medication for pain which keeps him bedridden most of the time. Due to excessive interference by the government, he has been referred to a doctor in Midland who specializes in pain management. But this commitment to pain management appears to be secondary to enforcement of the government’s excessive fears that such a patient will become an abuser of prescription drugs.

Spurred by the federal government’s crackdown on prescription drug abuse, doctors around the country are resorting to “pain contracts” with patients in an attempt to protect themselves from charges they are Dr. Feelgoods.

Such contracts typically require the patient to agree that “lost, stolen, or misplaced” drugs are not to be replaced and that the patient agrees to be regularly drug tested by submitting to blood, hair, or urine tests. The agreements may also require filling their prescriptions at a single pharmacy or refusal to accept pain medication from any other doctor. Patients who refuse to sign such an agreement, who don’t follow the rules, or who test positive for non-prescribed drugs such as marijuana are likely to be cut off.

Before a Pain Clinic accepts a chronic pain patient, they have to fulfill these basic criteria:
1. Be over 27 years old
2. Patient’s pain must have exceeded 4 months in duration and be projected to continue on indefinitely.
3. Have a verifiable (via CT or MRI) physiological problem that is severe enough to qualify them as a chronic pain patient. (Fibromyalgia uses other benchmarks because it is perceptive pain.)
4. Patient must agree to pursue therapies that can alleviate their pain (like physical therapy, weight loss, regular exercise and mental health therapy).
5. Patient intake documentation must be completed and verified (about 25 pages in length and includes psychological and arrest history).
6. The patient agrees to regular drug testing and signs a multitude of disclaimers and contracts.
7. The patient’s pain situation is reassessed every 30 days.

The CDC focused on pain in their 2006 chart book (pdf) and found that nearly 30% of all adults are in serious pain every day and that just under 5% uses narcotics every day.

Some patient advocates and policy experts say that rather than ensuring safety, the agreements invade patients’ privacy and damage the trust that’s essential to the doctor-patient relationship.

Such agreements are most commonly used when narcotic pain relievers are prescribed. But here is my observation about how my friend is being treated. First, it is costing him upwards of $1,500 (money my friend does not have) to jump through all these hoops. Second, in the meantime while my friend is being coerced into putting this money together over a period of months, the doctor is not prescribing any pain relievers—even non-narcotic ones—to attempt to help my friend cope with his pain.

How does a doctor who is pledged to “doing no harm” justify such disregard for the suffering of one who is under his care? Why does complying with the demands of an over-protective drug policy take precedence over the obligations of the Hippocratic Oath?

wctu 1This reminds me of the inflexible morality that so often accompanied the enforcement of Prohibition and the Volstead Act, and ultimately resulted in their undoing. Americans have a long history of using some misguided sense of morality to justify actions which are ultimately shown to be causative of all manner of human suffering that is just plain wrong by any objective measure.

Perhaps it can be blamed on our love of violent sports that are just a step removed from the amphitheaters of ancient Rome.

Perhaps it can be blamed on our mistaken belief that compassion is a sign of weakness as damnable as any display of emotion.

Perhaps it can be blamed on our prejudice that real men don’t eat quiche.

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Groove of the Day

Listen to The Talking Heads performing “No Compassion”

25
Feb
14

five years later

Five years have passed, and finally—after all this time—some of the people of New Castle PA are awakening to the fact that the community has gotten something important terribly wrong.
The case of Jordan Brown, goes the reasoning, should have been resolved a long time ago. If the guilt of an 11-year-old boy was so cut-and-dried, how has he managed to win every legal appeal heard outside of Lawrence County PA? If the boy were not innocent and telling the truth, why has he not cracked and admitted to committing the crime long before now? What does it mean that the original prosecutor has been discredited? Why has the state not admitted that the evidence gathered by the police all points to the boy’s innocence?
My first inkling that something is changing in the thinking of people in Lawrence County was when I received a call two weeks ago from Nancy Lowry of The New Castle News. I have been blogging about this case for almost five years, but this is the first time anyone at that local newspaper has wanted to talk with me. (I called The New Castle News several times over the course of this sad story, but never received any calls back. The Houk family held the newspaper’s interest, and it was their narrative which was being heard and which was driving the prosecution. Alternative versions of the truth were not welcome.) But now the paper was willing to hear me out!
And hear me out she did. In two phone calls, we spent almost three hours talking. For the first time, I got the impression the locals were not taking what I have to say as the ravings of an outsider (and a crackpot at that). More significantly, however, I got the impression that something which I have to say may be helpful to a community which is awakening to the realization that it has some pretty hefty apologizing and healing to do.
It is still too early to put this whole sordid affair to rest. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania will hear oral arguments next month, and it is anybody’s guess when the court will issue its ruling (or if that ruling will be the last we must hear on this case). But it is a sure bet that there will have to be forgiveness on both sides. For all they have lost, my guess is that Jordan and Chris Brown will be at the forefront of this necessary reconciliation. Jordan and his dad are good and generous people… better than Lawrence County deserves.
This series of stories in The New Castle News, compiled here, establishes a good foundation upon which this healing can happen. Agree with me or not, but it is a start. From this point onwards, the healing which happens in New Castle will depend on the fairness, goodwill, and capacity for growth of the citizens of Lawrence County PA.
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Jordan Brown, Five Years Later: Slaying shocks community; case drags on

Nancy Lowry, New Castle News

February 20, 2014

The morning of Feb. 20, 2009, workers cutting trees in New Beaver Borough were surprised to find a little girl in distress.

Getting the attention of the men, the child announced, “My mommy is dead.”

So began one of the most bizarre and extensive criminal cases in Lawrence County history. Five years on, it shows no sign of reaching its conclusion.

The first officer to arrive at 1146 Wampum-New Galilee Road would later testify he parked the child in front of the television and called for an ambulance. He would later say when he found a woman on a blood-soaked bed in a downstairs bedroom, he thought she had suffered a miscarriage. It wasn’t until she was placed on a gurney that responders found a head wound, the source of the blood.

kenzieKenzie Marie Houk, 26, was almost nine months pregnant when she died of a gunshot wound to the head. Her unborn son, the coroner would report, died of oxygen deprivation.

But if there was anything that could shock a community more than the fatal shooting of a young, pregnant woman, it was the news, less than 24 hours later, regarding the suspect.

The day of the shooting, state troopers skilled in interviewing children, visited Mohawk Elementary School, where they collected Houk’s daughter Jenessa, 7, and Jordan Brown, the son of Houk’s fiancé, Chris.

Officers asked them what they knew and what they had heard.

Photo from the Lawrence County JailIn the wee hours of the next day, 11-year-old Jordan was charged with two counts of criminal homicide.

He was arraigned before District Judge Scott McGrath.

On the job about a year, McGrath had never had a homicide case. He contacted the more experienced District Judge David Rishel.

Rishel later recalled walking to McGrath’s inner office, where the judge and police were conferring.

“There had been a little kid sitting in the lobby. I asked what was he doing there, because it was so late. I was told, ‘That’s the defendant.’ ”

Rishel said Jordan and his father openly cried during the arraignment, before the troopers took the child away.

“Scott and I talked to Chris for a long time afterward,” he recalled. “The man was emotionally destroyed and I was afraid of what he might do. I told him, ‘Your son needs you right now more than ever before.’”

Jordan was taken to the Lawrence County jail, then lodged in a juvenile detention center in Beaver County and then a juvenile center in Erie.

He was initially charged as an adult, as required by Pennsylvania law.

His defense team—local attorneys David Acker and Dennis Elisco and the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center—spent the next two and a half years working to get the case transferred to the juvenile justice system.

Although the case drew not only local, but national and international coverage, in the fall of 2011, Lawrence County Common Pleas Court Judge John W. Hodge barred the public from the proceedings. He noted this is customary in juvenile court.

Regional media, including the New Castle News, petitioned to have the hearings opened, but were unsuccessful.

The hearing to determine Jordan’s fate began April 10, 2012.

Prosecutors called 13 witnesses over parts of two days. The defense presented Jordan’s case in one afternoon.

On April 13, Hodge ruled Jordan delinquent, the juvenile equivalent of guilty.

A month later, he was sentenced to go to a juvenile facility in Chambersburg, Pa. The juvenile justice system requires cases be reviewed every six months.

After the first review of Jordan’s case, he was transferred to Grove City’s George Junior Republic on Nov. 29, 2012.

Following legal maneuvers from both sides, the Pennsylvania Superior Court overturned Hodge’s ruling of delinquent, saying the evidence was not sufficient to support that verdict.

More legal wrangling in the state’s appeals courts have led to today — less than three weeks before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will hear Jordan’s case. The seven justices are scheduled to convene March 12 in Philadelphia.

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Jordan Brown Case, Five Years Later: Victim’s family ‘coming along’

Nancy Lowry, New Castle News

February 21, 2014

Kenzie Houk’s family is “coming along” since she was taken from them five years ago.

Her daughters — Jenessa, 13 next month, and Adalynn, who turned 9 on Wednesday — are growing up, Houk’s parents Jack and Debbie Houk of Shenango Township said.

The 26-year-old Houk and her unborn baby died Feb. 20, 2009, when she was shot in the New Beaver Borough farmhouse she shared with her daughters, her fiancé, Chris Brown, and his son Jordan, then 11.

Now 16, Jordan was found to be responsible for the deaths. However, that determination by Lawrence County Judge John W. Hodge has been overturned by the Pennsylvania Superior Court and the case was ordered back to the county. An appeal of the Superior Court ruling will be argued before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court next month.

jenessa and adalynn“Both girls are doing well in school, have friends and are surrounded by family,” their grandmother said. “But of course, they miss their mother.

“I miss her too,” said Debbie Houk, who still stops almost every day at Parkside Cemetery, where her daughter and unborn grandson are buried.

The graves are decorated for holidays and special occasions, including Kenzie’s April 20 birthday and the anniversary of her death. Family and friends gathered at the grave Thursday — the fifth anniversary — followed by a meal at the family home.

“Adalynn said to serve her birthday cake after the memorial service,” said Debbie Houk, who shares a birthday with her granddaughter.

“This has forever ruined her birthday,” she said. “It’s a hard day for us. We don’t celebrate.”

Debbie Houk said she will still observe Adalynn’s birthday with cupcakes, but there won’t be a party for a week or two.

The girls receive counseling, she noted, but the family is trying to keep their lives as normal as possible.

Both follow in their mother’s athletic footsteps and both have chosen Olympic gold-medal-winning gymnast Gabby Douglas and their mother as role models.

Jenessa is a cheerleader for football and basketball and plays basketball on an AAU traveling team. She anticipates adding volleyball and track this year. Adalynn, who loves to read, is enrolled in gymnastics and this year began learning basketball fundamentals.

At 11 or 12, Debbie Houk recalled, Kenzie was involved in gymnastics and took part in national competition in Nashville, Tenn.

“She finished sixth,” her mother said. “We were encouraged to enroll her in a program where she could compete and be trained by international coaches.

“It would have been expensive and taken all of her time. We didn’t do it,” Debbie Houk said. “Looking back, I wish we had. A lot of things might have been different.”

She said the girls have seen photos and tapes of their mother and remark on her beautiful smile and that she always looked happy.

“That was her gift. She was good with people.”

A beautician until she became pregnant for the third time, Kenzie Houk entertained her daughters by painting their fingernails, doing up their hair and putting on music and dancing with them, their grandmother said.

“They say they remember that. I hope they will not forget her. In the meantime, I keep them busy and they keep me busy.”

Houk family members said they have been disappointed at how the case has played out and cannot believe it has stretched out for five years without resolution.

Debbie Houk said she believes the police have pieced together what happened and solved the case.

“It is not possible that it could have been anyone else.”

But in the five years since the shooting, “Jordan has not received the help he needs,” she said. “Without any help or treatment, he can’t be rehabilitated.

“He needs to admit what he’s done and show some remorse,” she continued. “I’ve never received the answers I want. I don’t want pity, but sometimes I get so angry.”

Jordan, who has been in custody since his arrest on Feb. 21, 2009, has never admitted guilt in the shooting.

“They said he’s getting counseling because his mother abandoned him as a baby,” Debbie Houk said.

Jack Houk, who noted he has developed health issues that may be the result of stress, said, “Every day I think of my daughter. My family has been hurt so much and for so long.

“What I would like to see is for the boy to get some help and for us to get freedom from this hurt.”

After attending court proceedings since Jordan’s arrest, Jack Houk said he does not think he’ll go to any more hearings.

Since Jordan’s adjudication and disposition—the juvenile justice system equivalent of a guilty verdict and sentencing—Houk family members have been present every six months when Lawrence County Judge John W. Hodge reviews the case. Those evaluations are required by state law to determine if the youth is receiving adequate treatment.

“All we hear is how wonderfully he’s doing academically,” Jack Houk said. “It’s a shame that he’s received no help whatsoever.”

After being found responsible for the deaths on April 13, 2012, Jordan was sent first to a juvenile facility in Chambersburg, then to George Junior Republic in Grove City.

“He gets all the breaks. It’s just not fair for the Houks,” Jack Houk said. “I just don’t get it.”

Over the years, Debbie Houk said, she is trying to summon up forgiveness for the boy accused in the death of her daughter and grandson.

“I’m not religious, but this is what we’re told to do. A little remorse on his part would help.”

She said she also wishes things had gone differently between her family and Jordan’s father.

“We lost a daughter and a grandchild. In all of this time, Chris has sat through hearings as if he does not care.

“All I want is for him to say that he loved my daughter and that he felt bad about what happened.”

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Jordan Brown Case, Five Years Later: Reluctant to comment, prosecutor remains ready

Nancy Lowry, New Castle News

February 21, 2014

Prosecutors stand ready to bring the Jordan Brown case to its conclusion.

Anthony J. Krastek, Pennsylvania senior deputy attorney general, took over prosecution of the case in January 2010.

Prosecutor Anthony Krastek speaking with the HouksHe became involved following the election of Joshua Lamancusa as Lawrence County’s district attorney. At the time, Lamancusa cited a possible conflict of interest and the Pennsylvania Bar Association agreed. So the case was turned over to the state attorney general’s office. Previously, former county district attorney John Bongivengo handled the prosecution.

For four years, Krastek has had the lead in prosecuting the now-16-year-old Jordan, accused of fatally shooting a pregnant Kenzie Houk.

But Krastek will not be in Philadelphia next month when the case is before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. On March 12, the full seven-member panel is expected to hear arguments in an appeal of the guilty verdict against Jordan. James Barker, chief deputy attorney general, is handling that proceeding.

Depending on how the Supreme Court rules, Krastek said, he may continue to be involved.

“Everything depends on the decision of the court.”

In 2012, Lawrence County Judge John W. Hodge found Jordan responsible for the deaths of Houk and her unborn son. That juvenile justice system determination is equivalent to a guilty verdict in criminal court.

His attorneys appealed that conviction to the state’s Superior Court, which overturned Hodge’s decision.

Now, Krastek explained, the prosecution is asking that the Superior Court’s ruling be reversed.

“That would reinstate Judge Hodge’s findings.”

Krastek said the Supreme Court justices have several options. One involves retrying the case, which Krastek said he is prepared to do. Another would return the case to Hodge to reconsider his ruling.

The prosecutor said he could not comment on particulars of the case, including what evidence had been presented during the juvenile court hearing. He explained details of juvenile court matters are not public, only the outcome is.

He said he remains up to date with the case and has kept in touch with Houk’s family.

“This has been brutal on them.” Krastek said. “The criminal justice system and the juvenile courts are not designed to reconcile the loss of victims or survivors of victims.

“There is nothing the system can do to salve the family’s loss.”

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Jordan Brown Case, Five Years Later: Family gathers at cemetery, again

Nancy Lowry, New Castle News

February 21, 2014

For the fifth time, the Houk family has marked the death of their Kenzie Marie and her unborn son.

About two dozen friends and family members gathered Thursday night at Parkside Cemetery for the annual memorial service. Some family members wore red T-shirts commemorating the service, some released balloons.

Five years ago Thursday—Feb. 20, 2009—26-year-old Kenzie was fatally shot in her southern Lawrence County home. She was nearly nine months pregnant. Her unborn baby also died.

jarod mills and houksJarod Mills, pastor of Clifton Flat Alliance Church, officiated at Thursday’s service, offering prayers and a Scripture reading.

He also noted that Houk and his older brother Eddie had grown up together in the church. They are reunited at the Shenango Township cemetery, where his brother is entombed just feet from where Kenzie is buried. Staff Sgt. Edward D. Mills Jr. died May 26, 2011, in Afghanistan.

“We come as a mourning people seeking comfort,” Mills said.

He also spoke of forgiveness.

“It takes time,” he said. “Your head knows forgiveness is the right thing to do, but the heart sometimes takes longer to heal.”

Houk’s parents, Jack and Debbie Houk of Shenango Township, thanked those in attendance.

“Your being here means a lot to us,” Jack Houk told the gathering, which included several children.

“We appreciate every one,” Debbie Houk added. “You’ve kept in contact with us, you’ve been here for us. You show us that you care.”

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Jordan Brown Case, Five Years Later: Juvenile advocate in teen’s corner

Nancy Lowry, New Castle News

February 22, 2014

Dan Dailey has raised money and provided support for Jordan Brown’s defense team.

Now a 16-year-old, Jordan was 11 when he was charged as an adult with two counts of homicide in the fatal shooting of his father’s pregnant fiancée, Kenzie Marie Houk, 26. She was killed in the New Beaver Borough farmhouse she shared with Jordan, his father, Chris, and her two daughters, then 4 and 7.

dan-croppedSpecializing in parricide cases—those involving children who kill parents or caregivers—Dailey directs The Redemption Project, a nonprofit youth justice advocacy program that offers unconditional and lifelong support to children who commit parricide.

Dailey noted his 80 acres, in the mountains of Texas about 40 miles from the Mexican border, is owned by the youngsters he has helped.

“It will pass from my management to theirs,” he said. “They will always have a place to come home to.”

So far, he has been involved in the legal cases of 11 children.

He also provides a daily blog, The Wandervogel Diary, named for a pre-World War I back-to-nature movement in Germany.

Jordan’s name is frequently mentioned in his blog.

Dailey, who has slowed his pace since suffering a stroke late in 2012, said he believes in Jordan’s innocence.

Noting he has been involved with high-profile parricide cases since 2005, Dailey said, “None of the usual factors—which include mental illness and abuse—were present in Jordan’s case. He loved Kenzie.”

Dailey said the available evidence does not support the guilty verdict pronounced in the case.

“People must know the truth,” he said. “And the truth has not been told.”

He also said the evidence supports that a handgun—not a shotgun—was used to commit the murder. He also suggested that shot shell, possibly a hand-made shell, was used.

“Meanwhile, five years have been taken from Jordan. He’s lost his childhood.”

Dailey’s organization provides legal and other services to accused children, most of whom are indigent and lack family support.

The Redemption Project hires lawyers and expert witnesses at the trial phase; provides mentors, education materials and commissary funds while the children are jailed; and tuition, housing, health care and other support during the prison-to-freedom transition.

He said his project is needed, because of “the unforgiving nature of society toward people accused in these crimes.”

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Jordan Brown Case, Five Years Later: Father convinced beyond a doubt of son’s innocenceNancy Lowry, New Castle NewsFebruary 23, 2014

The broken-hearted father of Jordan Brown is rebuilding his life while remaining strong for his son.

Jordan is charged in the fatal shooting five years ago of his father’s pregnant fiancée, Kenzie Houk. She was killed in the New Beaver Borough farmhouse the couple shared with Jordan, then 11, and her daughters, who were 7 and 4.

“It was so shocking it is hard to describe,” Chris Brown said of the incident and the ordeal which continues to dominate his life.

“There is still a lot of disbelief, a lot of concern, mixed feelings and emotions,” he said. “Seeing the police come in, pull your son out of bed and take him to jail is pretty disturbing.”

imagejpeg_2_2Now 41, Brown said his concern is for his 16-year-old son, who has been locked up for five years.

“He’s missed his childhood. My concern is to help him to get over what he’s been through.”

Brown said he hopes to see some good come from his son’s experience.

“This case could change laws and the juvenile court system,” he noted. “Without a doubt, Jordan will make a difference in the lives of other children.”

Brown was at work on Feb. 20, 2009, when he was summoned home. He was questioned by the Pennsylvania state police. Then, in the wee hours of the next morning, Jordan was arrested.

“The news media was all over Lawrence County,” he said. “There was no place that I could go.”

He said he didn’t sleep for three days, then began to have nightmares.

PUBLIC PERCEPTION

Brown, who for the most part has shunned media contact since his son’s arrest, pointed out limited information on details from the courtroom has become public. He believes most of what is known has come from the Houk family, who have made themselves available to the media throughout the case.

“This has shaped public perception.”

It has also frustrated him. “I no longer read newspapers or watch television accounts, which labeled Jordan as an 11-year-old murderer.”

Brown said he is heart-broken when old friends approach, ask about him and Jordan then ask, “Did he say why he did it?”

He has spoken extensively to his son, Brown said, and is convinced beyond doubt of the boy’s innocence.

“Since the start I have said, if he did it he needs help. But I’ve also said I won’t walk away from him, turn him over to the state and make him a victim of the system. He is my son.”

He added he believes others are equally convinced of Jordan’s innocence.

“After the initial shock, when people saw the newspapers and stories on television, they might have believed it, but as information came out they began to think ‘No way could he have done this. No evidence links him to what was done.’”

Still guarded about what he says regarding Jordan, Brown is knowledgeable about and has strong opinions of both the criminal and juvenile court systems and what he has identified as shortcomings.

“That a judge denied decertifying Jordan to juvenile court because he would not admit his guilt—a clear violation of his Constitutional rights—just blows my mind.”

Brown also said he believes Jordan was found delinquent—the juvenile court equivalent of guilty—on circumstantial evidence that would not have been sufficient to convict an adult.

“When the judge announced the verdict, everyone in the courtroom was shocked,.” Brown said. “I saw court people with tears running down their faces. They knew it was the wrong decision. There had been nothing that linked Jordan to the crime. Nothing. An 11-year-old can’t plan his own birthday party let alone calculate a murder.”

Brown said evidence revealed there had been no fingerprints on the shotgun that police claim is the murder weapon. A blanket, said to have been used to muffle the sound of the gun, contained no gunshot residue, no fibers from that blanket were found on the gun and a burn hole found in the blanket was determined to have been made by a cigarette.

“The only link to Jordan was they all came from the same house.”

Evidence considered by the judge included a speck of gunshot residue found on Jordan’s shirt and pants. Had Jordan fired a gun that morning, his father said, “his clothes would have been polluted with gunshot residue. But he wasn’t.”

Brown said state police checked his hands and those of another “person of interest” for gunshot residue, but Jordan’s hands were never tested for gunshot residue, nor was his coat.

“And the pants checked were not the ones he wore to school that day but a pair he changed into that had been at his grandmother’s house. He’d worn those jeans the previous weekend when he and I went to an indoor turkey shoot.”

‘RESPONSIBLE FATHER’

Contrary to belief, Brown said, his guns had not been lying around the house.

“I’m a responsible father. My guns were not accessible to the children.”

His weapons—which included hunting rifles, shotguns, pistols and a muzzle-loader—were usually stored in the back of a closet in the downstairs bedroom Brown and Houk shared, he noted. None was loaded, he said, and ammunition was stored separately in an armoire drawer in the bedroom, and in a pistol safe, also in the armoire.

Brown said the couple was anticipating swapping bedrooms with Jordan, to be closer to the upstairs nursery, and some items, including the guns, had been moved a few days earlier.

He said Jordan, under his supervision, was learning to shoot. The two practiced in the yard at their farmhouse.

“I’m a hunter,” he said. “I’d estimate 80 percent of all homes in Lawrence County have multiple firearms.”

At Jordan’s preliminary hearing, state troopers testified guns had been found stacked in Jordan’s upstairs bedroom. They said one smelled as if it had been fired recently.

Another piece of evidence, a spent gun shell said to be in pristine condition, was found in the yard.

“It was 90 feet from the driveway the kids ran down to catch the school bus that morning and found under ice and snow-covered leaves,” Brown said, adding, “I don’t think I could have thrown a shell that far.”

Brown said the defense’s theory of what happened involves one of Kenzie’s former boyfriends, who had threatened her and her family members, prompting her to take out a protection from abuse order against him. Brown claimed police did not pursue that avenue.

‘THAT IS A SHAME’

In the years since the shooting, Brown said, he has tried to see Houk’s daughters, who had called him Daddy.

“I was turned down every time I asked,” he said. “I fear that early on the prosecution drove a wedge between us. I fear that is unrepairable.”

Brown said he has seen anger, hate and grief directed at his son and him.

“That is a shame. I feel they were misled.”

Within a day or two of the incident, Brown said, and without evidence to support it, police told the Houks they were 100 percent sure that Jordan had done it.

“From that moment on, they were convinced Jordan was responsible and there is no other possibility. They don’t realize that I’m a victim of this too. I lost everything.”

HANDLED DIFFERENTLY

Although he likes Jordan’s current location, George Junior Republic in Grove City, Brown said the teen is being held back.

Jordan enjoys basketball but cannot make the school’s team because he cannot leave the campus for away games, his father noted. And for the same reason, he can’t sign up for track this spring.

“He has good grades and is not a behavioral problem. They say he’s not an escape risk and is respectful, but he remains in a restricted unit and is denied off-campus visits.”

Brown said he would love to get a pass to take his son to a movie or for an overnight visit. Other residents earn this privilege in three months, he pointed out.

“Jordan’s been there nine months and has done nothing wrong.”

“They handle him differently than other (residents). They say they’re concerned about what could happen if he comes home.”

Brown said he remains Jordan’s number one advocate.

“He’s my son. I believe in him and I believe that he is innocent.”

Brown said he was further frustrated after being told Jordan cannot leave the school because he does not have a safe home to be released to.

“They said it is a detriment to his welfare to be placed with his father, that I’m a problem,” Brown said.

“There is no evidence to support this,” he continued. “I raised Jordan on my own since he was a baby. I have provided for him, met his needs, never abused him.”

He added the department of corrections “has hired me to provide care, custody and control of adult inmates. The commonwealth trusts me but the system does not?”

Through all that has happened, Brown said, “Jordan remains cautiously optimistic that the truth will come out and the court will make the right decision and do the right thing. But we’ve had a lot of disappointments.”

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Jordan Brown Case, Five Years Later: Defense attorney learns ‘to expect the unexpected’

Nancy Lowry, New Castle News

February 24, 2014

On the morning of Feb. 21, 2009, attorney Dennis Elisco met a boy who changed his life.

Thursday marked the five-year anniversary in the case of 16-year-old Jordan Brown.

Jordan was 11 when he was charged as an adult with two counts of homicide in the fatal shooting of his father’s pregnant fiancée Kenzie Marie Houk, 26. She died in the New Beaver Borough farmhouse she shared with Jordan, his father, Chris, and her two daughters, then 4 and 7.

“If I’ve learned anything from this case, it is to expect the unexpected,” said Elisco, now preparing for arguments in front of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

20090225smnewcastle01_500Elisco leads Jordan’s defense team, which currently includes attorney Stephen Colafella of Monaca. New Castle attorney David Acker was on the team early in the case. It also always has included the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center. All have worked pro bono to defend their client at no charge.

“No one has made a penny on this case, which has now stretched into its fifth year,” Elisco said.

His involvement began about 6:30 a.m. Feb. 21, 2009, when he was called by a distraught man in need of legal help for his young son.

“Jordan had been charged the night before,” Elisco said. “Chris Brown had called Josh Lamancusa, who was running for district attorney. He saw a potential conflict and recommended Dave Acker and me.”

By 10 a.m., Elisco was at the Lawrence County jail, meeting Jordan in a conference room.

“I’ll never forget. He was wearing the smallest prison jumpsuit they could find. The legs were rolled up four times but were still too long. The sleeves were rolled up as many times as they could be and still at his wrists. His feet dangling, not touching the ground. He looked like a kid sitting in a Little League dugout.”

Nothing about the case went as Elisco had anticipated.

“I expected the case would be decertified—transferred to juvenile court—within months of the preliminary hearing and proceed to adjudication or acquittal. I thought it would be wrapped up within the year.”

Now, past the five-year mark, the case remains the most unusual Elisco has ever taken.

He noted the defense has won every appeal it has presented on Jordan’s behalf

On the decertification question, Elisco said, he and Acker had to obtain Judge Dominick Motto’s approval to appeal his ruling to keep the case in criminal court.

Motto agreed to allow the appeal to Pennsylvania Superior Court, which ruled in favor of the defense. That resulted in the case being transferred to the juvenile justice system.

When the news media appealed Judge John W. Hodge’s ruling that barred the public from the juvenile court proceedings, the Superior Court agreed.

While waiting for the media appeal to be decided, Elisco said, he petitioned the court to release Jordan until his trial was conducted.

The Superior Court granted that defense request. However, the trial was scheduled within a few days, so Jordan was not released.

Elisco said the defense lost the trial, but prevailed in the appeal to the Superior Court, which ruled the evidence did not support the guilty verdict and ordered the case back to the county for retrial.

Next month, the state Supreme Court will hear the prosecution’s appeal of that Superior Court ruling.

“We won three interlocutory appeals—appeals held prior to the trial, prior to the verdict,” he said. “Normally a case is not appealable until after a verdict is rendered.”

Had anyone along the way said no, Elisco noted, the defense would have had to consider a plea bargain or gone to trial.

“But we would never have taken this boy before a jury to decide his fate. Even now, after I have seen the limited quality of evidence against him, I would never have run that risk.”

Elisco said the case has changed his life and raised his awareness.

Over the years, Elisco said, Jordan and his father, Chris Brown, have become like family to him.

“When Chris went to work the morning of Feb. 20, 2009, he and his fiancée were planning their marriage. They were about to have a son. He had a family that included his 11-year-old son and her two daughters. His future looked bright and promising.

“Within hours, his fiancée and the baby were dead and his own son was gone, charged with homicide—the youngest person in the United States ever to be charged as an adult with homicide.”

Elisco also said the case “exemplifies misguided and wrongful prosecution” which has denied justice to Jordan and the victim’s family.

“I will go to my grave believing in Jordan’s innocence,” he said. “I believe the Superior Court got it right when they ruled the evidence was inadequate to support a conviction.

“That’s pretty strong language.”

Elisco also said the case has garnered the most exposure of any in his career.

“Because Jordan is a juvenile, he could not be executed, so this case is less serious in terms of consequences.”

As a result of Jordan’s case, Elisco said, he believes Pennsylvania’s laws governing youthful offenders will change.

“I’m confident the law will change and this case may be the reason.”

The gravity of the situation, he said, was spelled out in a friend of the court brief filed in 2010. Several lawyers and organizations from across the country joined to advocate for the juvenile justice system and outlined issues previously unconsidered. This included consequences of jailing such a young person in prisons housing adults.

“They opened the eyes of people to see that an 11-year-old in an adult prison is unacceptable,” he said, adding they “are babies on the cognitive, physical and social levels.”

Jordan has been in custody since the day after the shooting. Currently, he is housed at Grove City’s George Junior Republic.

Elisco said he’s doing well academically. He noted Jordan is testing at second-year college level in reading and writing and third-year college level in math and science.

When Jordan is released, Elisco continued, he expects to see him go to college. “He’s an intelligent kid.”

Jordan “is very, very quiet and of course has been impacted by what has happened.

“He’s missed out on his childhood.”

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Jordan Brown Case, Five Years Later: After half a decade, intrigue and questions remain

Nancy Lowry, New Castle News

February 24, 2014

Unusual aspects of Jordan Brown’s case drew national and international attention.

Now 16, Jordan was 11 when he was charged as an adult with two counts of homicide in the fatal shooting of his father’s pregnant fiancée, Kenzie Marie Houk, 26.

Houk died Feb. 20, 2009, in the New Beaver Borough farmhouse she shared with Jordan and his father, Chris, and her daughters, then 4 and 7.

What made the story stand out was the age of the alleged shooter. Other factors included the presence of and access to guns and ammunition in the household and Pennsylvania law—which required that the suspect be charged as an adult.

With this action came the potential of the child being sentenced to life in jail without the possibility of parole, if he were to be convicted of the killings. Had this happened, he would have been the youngest person in the nation to face such a penalty.

After Lawrence County President Judge Dominick Motto denied the defense petition to move the case to juvenile court, Amnesty International weighed in.

Jordan’s lawyers and father were interviewed by TV psychologist Dr. Phil McGraw, Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, Good Morning America and news media from across the United States as well as London, Paris, Istanbul, Turkey, and Damascus, Syria.

The case garnered a page on Wikipedia, the Internet encyclopedia. AOL and other Internet sites have tracked progress of the case.

Motto’s decision to keep the case in criminal court also resulted in the involvement of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center.

“They don’t take on a lot of cases and their involvement has lightened our steps on this journey,” defense attorney Dennis Elisco said.

One contentious aspect early in the case was the life in prison without the possibility of parole requirement upon conviction.

This ceased to be a concern when the case was moved to juvenile court. In Pennsylvania, a conviction in juvenile court could result in a sentence no longer than “juvenile life,” meaning Jordan could not be held past his 21st birthday.

Jordan has been in custody since the day after the shooting. It was more than three years later—April 13, 2012—that he was found responsible for the deaths—the juvenile justice system’s equivalent of a guilty verdict.

The conviction, Elisco said, was based on circumstantial evidence, including the presence of two specks of gunshot residue on Jordan’s clothing. One speck was found on the thigh of his jeans, the second on the chest of his shirt.

He said this caused the court to conclude that Jordan had fired a gun that morning.

Elisco noted the prosecution has consistently said the 20-gauge shotgun found in the home is the murder weapon.

The position of the defense, he continued, is that a small caliber handgun, not a shotgun, was used in the shooting. If a shotgun had been used, he said, gunshot residue would have been found in the carpet and would have covered Jordan’s clothing to a greater degree.

Elisco said even the prosecution’s expert witness “could not say with any certainty” where the residue had come from.

In fact, he continued, the presence of the small amount of residue could be explained by Jordan’s presence at a recent turkey shoot.

A like-new shell casing—said to have been tossed by Jordan on his way to the school bus and found about 100 feet away from the path to the bus—yielded no fingerprints or DNA linking it to Jordan, Elisco said.

Jordan’s fingerprints were not found on the gun the prosecution claims was used, he added, and no time of death ever has been established.

“When the police considered the autopsy, forensic and ballistics tests and gunshot residue evidence, they should have concluded Jordan was not guilty.”

In addition, no tracks—other than those made by Jordan and one of Houk’s daughters headed for the school bus—were found outside the house.

Anthony Krastek, Pennsylvania senior deputy attorney general who prosecuted the case, contends Houk was shot with a 20-gauge shotgun found in the house. That gun was said to have been a gift to Jordan from his father.

“The police focused on (Jordan) because he was the most likely perpetrator. All other possibilities were eliminated,” Krastek said in April 2012 while outlining the case he had presented before Lawrence County Judge John W. Hodge.

At the time, Krastek said the investigation showed that Jordan had perceived Houk’s daughters were treated better than he was and he was invisible.

“It may not have been the case, but that’s how it looked to an 11-year-old.”

Krastek also said then that the evidence linked Jordan to the crime. He noted that few people knew where the family lived and there was only a half-hour window of opportunity for the killer.

Someone would have had to know where they lived, know that guns were in Jordan’s room, know that the ammunition for the guns was kept in Houk’s room, go into her room without waking her, get the ammunition, kill her, return the gun to Jordan’s bedroom and leave without leaving footprints or tire tracks, he said.

On May 8, 2013, the Pennsylvania Superior Court overturned Hodge’s determination that Jordan was responsible for the deaths. It ordered the case back to Lawrence County.

The prosecution appealed that ruling to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear arguments March 12 in Philadelphia.

Elisco said the justices will be considering two issues raised by the prosecution.

“They say we waived any challenge of evidence because we did not file an immediate post-trial motion for a new trial so we can’t challenge it now. We contend there is nothing in juvenile court law that says we had to file such a motion.

“The second issue is that the evidence was adequate to support the conviction.”

Elisco said the Juvenile Law Center will argue the technical points and he will argue that the evidence did not support the conviction.

“I feel the Supreme Court will rule in our favor.”

If that happens, the case will be returned to Lawrence County for retrial or the charges will be dismissed.

Elisco said he believes the commonwealth will retry the case.

He appears to be correct. Last week, Krastek said he remains up to date with the case and ready to continue if he’s needed.

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Our Opinion: After five years, Jordan Brown case continues—sadly for all

By Staff, New Castle News

February 25, 2014

It’s not unusual for newspapers to look back on major news events when key anniversaries come about.

So it was that the New Castle News has been running articles on the fifth anniversary of the 2009 slaying of Kenzie Houk, and the subsequent arrest of Jordan Brown for the crime.

This case—involving a young, pregnant woman who was killed in her bed and the 11-year-old son of her fiancé who was charged with the crime—was a major story in Lawrence County when it broke. In fact, it captured attention around the country and the world, mainly because of the age of the suspect and his arrest as an adult.

But the five-year retrospective in this instance is different than other old stories. Typically, these are looks into the past. The case of Jordan Brown is very much an ongoing saga, and one with no end in sight.

We have addressed this issue before. It is absolutely outrageous that five years on, Pennsylvania’s legal system is still dealing with this matter. Next month, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will hear arguments in an appeal of a state Superior Court ruling in the case.

From there, we are not sure what will happen. The state’s highest court could confirm the Superior Court decision that overruled Lawrence County Common Pleas Court Judge John Hodge’s ruling that Jordan was responsible for the Houk shooting. If that happens, the case would return to Hodge for a rehearing.

Or the court could overturn the appeals court decision, meaning Jordan—now classified as a juvenile—would remain in state custody until he is 21.

There are perhaps other options for the Supreme Court to pursue, but how long will it take for the justices to issue a ruling? We note that it took more than four months for the Supreme Court just to decide to hear the case. That’s not an encouraging sign for a speedy resolution.

It is nothing short of appalling that an 11-year-old boy can be charged with homicide, and five years later the case is still rattling around the courts. You would hope that a sense of shame would have sunk into the commonwealth’s jurists by now, but the leisurely four months used by the Supreme Court to decide to hear the appeal in Jordan’s case tells us otherwise.

If the case winds up back in Lawrence County, we presume any proceedings again will be conducted behind closed doors, on the grounds Jordan is a juvenile and the commonwealth must protect him.

But the courts have done a tremendous disservice to Jordan Brown and Kenzie Houk, as well as their family members. Who will protect them from a legal system that operates as if it is disconnected from reality?

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Jordan Brown, Five Years Later: What happened—and when

Lugene Hudson,  New Castle News

February 20, 2014

2009

•Feb. 20 — A pregnant Kenzie Marie Houk, 26, is killed in the New Beaver Borough farmhouse she shared with her daughters — Jenessa, 7, and Adalynn, 4— her fiancée, Chris Brown, and his son, Jordan.

•Feb. 21 — Jordan Brown is charged with two counts of homicide. He is only 11 years old, but state law requires he be charged as an adult.

•March 2 — Jordan is lodged in the Edmund L. Thomas Adolescent Center in Erie after spending four days in a 10-foot-square cell at the Lawrence County jail and six days at a juvenile detention center in Beaver County.

•March 24 — Ten witnesses testify for the prosecution at Jordan’s preliminary hearing before District Judge David Rishel. All charges are held for court.

•May 5 — Jordan enters a not guilty plea at a formal arraignment.

•Oct. 4 — His defense attorneys ask the court to transfer the case to the juvenile justice system.

•December — Joshua Lamancusa, the county’s newly elected district attorney, reports a possible conflict of interest — and the Pennsylvania Bar Association agrees.

2010

•Jan. 14 — Anthony J. Krastek, Pennsylvania’s senior deputy attorney general, is named to handle the prosecution.

•Jan. 29 — Dr. Kirk Heilbrun, a forensic psychologist and expert on adolescent development, testifies at a hearing on transferring the case to the juvenile justice system. He said Jordan is amenable to rehabilitative counseling available through the juvenile system.

•March 12 — Dr. John O’Brien of Philadelphia, a forensic psychiatrist and lawyer, testifies at the continuation of the Jan. 29 hearing. He says Jordan is reluctant to take responsibility for his actions, which “complicates his ability to be rehabilitated.”

•March 18 — Amnesty International, an organization supporting human rights, shows interest in the case and concern that, if convicted, Jordan could be the youngest person in the nation sentenced to life in prison without parole.

•March 29 — Dominick Motto, Lawrence County Common Pleas Court president judge, rules Jordan’s case should not be transferred to juvenile court. He cites Heilbrun and O’Brien, who “agree that the first step towards rehabilitation is to take responsibility for the underlying offense.” Motto writes: “The court concludes it is not likely defendant can be rehabilitated prior to the expiration of the juvenile court jurisdiction.”

•May 3 — Motto grants permission for the defense to appeal his decision.

•July 28 — The Pennsylvania Superior Court agrees to hear the appeal.

•Sept. 13 — A friend of the court brief is filed on Jordan’s behalf by five organizations and three law professors, all legal experts and advocates for the juvenile justice system. They say if he is convicted as an adult, Jordan would be the youngest person in the nation sentenced to life in prison without parole.

2011

•Jan. 25 — The Pennsylvania Superior Court hears Lourdes Rosado, associate director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, on Jordan’s behalf and Christopher Carusone, Pennsylvania’s chief deputy attorney general, for the commonwealth.

•March 11 — The Superior Court rules 2-1 against Motto’s decision to keep the case in criminal court. The judges send the case back to Lawrence County and order reconsideration or another hearing on the possibility of transferring the case to juvenile court.

•April 20 — Houk’s daughters spend her birthday without her — for the third time.

•Aug. 5 — Motto reconsiders arguments to move the case to juvenile court.

•Aug. 23 — Motto rules Jordan — who is a week away from turning 14 — will be tried as a juvenile.

•Sept. 15 — Lawrence County Common Pleas Court Judge John Hodge excludes the public — including the news media — from the hearing that will determine Jordan’s guilt or innocence.

•Sept. 20 — The New Castle News and two other newspapers file petitions to intervene and open the proceedings.

•Sept. 23 — Hodge rejects news media requests.

•Sept. 26 — The newspapers appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. The court stays the proceedings, pending disposition of the appeals.

•Oct. 28 — Defense attorney Dennis Elisco petitions the juvenile court to release Jordan, saying his continued detention without an adjudicatory hearing violates the Juvenile Act. However, Hodge says he does not believe he has the authority to release Jordan.

2012

•Jan. 10 — The newspapers’ appeal goes before the Superior Court.

•Feb. 22 — The Superior Court rules the proceedings will be kept closed.

•March 28 — The defense asks the Superior Court to release Jordan prior to the scheduling of his juvenile court hearing.

•April 3 — The Superior Court rules Hodge does have authority to release Jordan. Hodge conducts a hearing to consider that. The judge decides not to release the teen pending his hearing, which he schedules for the following week.

•April 10 — Hodge begins an adjudication hearing — the juvenile justice system’s equivalent of a trial in criminal court.

•April 13 — Hodge rules Jordan is delinquent. The delinquent determination is the juvenile system’s equivalent of a guilty verdict in criminal court.

•May 18 — Disposition, the juvenile system’s equivalent of sentencing, is announced. Jordan is to be sent to a juvenile facility in Chambersburg, Franklin County. The state’s juvenile justice system requires that youngsters being held have their case reviewed every six months.

•June 15 — The defense files notice of appeal.

•Nov. 2 — Jordan’s first six-month evaluation is conducted in Lawrence County courts. Hodge learns the Chambersburg facility does not want him. Officials there say he is not participating in counseling sessions.

•Nov. 29 — Hodge orders Jordan to be sent to George Junior Republic, a similar facility in Grove City, Mercer County.

2013

•May 8 — The Superior Court overturns Hodge’s determination that Jordan is responsible for the deaths. The Superior Court judges say the evidence presented was not sufficient for the verdict. The case is sent back to Lawrence County.

•May 22 — The commonwealth files application to the Superior Court, challenging the decision overturning Hodge’s ruling.

•July 22 — The Superior Court denies the application for reargument.

•Aug. 21 — The state attorney general’s office asks the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to review the Superior Court decision overturning Hodge’s ruling on Jordan’s guilt.

•Dec. 30 — The state Supreme Court agrees to hear an appeal of the superior court decision.

2014

•Jan. 14 — The Supreme Court sets March 12 for the full seven-member panel to hear arguments in the case in Philadelphia. They will be asked to reinstate Hodge’s decision finding Jordan responsible for the deaths.

•Feb. 20 — It has been five years since Kenzie Houk and her unborn son were killed. Her daughters are now 9 and 12; Jordan is 16.

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Groove of the Day

Listen to The Tales performing “Lost Youth & Yellow Liars”

24
Feb
14

streets of philadelphia

philadelphia street 1

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Groove of the Day

Listen to Bruce Springsteen performing “The Streets Of Philadelphia”

23
Feb
14

my night in solitary

My Night in Solitary

By Rick Raemisch, Colorado Department of Corrections

New York Times, February 20, 2014

raemischAt 6:45 pm on January 23rd, I was delivered to a Colorado state penitentiary, where I was issued an inmate uniform and a mesh bag with my toiletries and bedding. My arms were handcuffed behind my back, my legs were shackled and I was deposited in Administrative Segregation—solitary confinement.

I hadn’t committed a crime. Instead, as the new head of the state’s corrections department, I wanted to learn more about what we call Ad Seg.

Most states now agree that solitary confinement is overused, and many—like New York, which just agreed to a powerful set of reforms this week—are beginning to act. When I was appointed, Governor John Hickenlooper charged me with three goals: limiting or eliminating the use of solitary confinement for mentally ill inmates; addressing the needs of those who have been in solitary for long periods; and reducing the number of offenders released directly from solitary back into their communities. If I was going to accomplish these, I needed a better sense of what solitary confinement was like, and what it did to the prisoners who were housed there, sometimes for years.

My cell, No. 22, was on the second floor, at the end of what seemed like a very long walk. At the cell, the officers removed my shackles. The door closed and the feed tray door opened. I was told to put my hands through it so the cuffs could be removed. And then I was alone—classified as an RFP, or “Removed From Population.”

In regular Ad Seg, inmates can have books or TVs. But in RFP Ad Seg, no personal property is allowed. The room is about 7 by 13 feet. What little there is inside—bed, toilet, sink—is steel and screwed to the floor.

First thing you notice is that it’s anything but quiet. You’re immersed in a drone of garbled noise—other inmates’ blaring TVs, distant conversations, shouted arguments. I couldn’t make sense of any of it, and was left feeling twitchy and paranoid. I kept waiting for the lights to turn off, to signal the end of the day. But the lights did not shut off. I began to count the small holes carved in the walls. Tiny grooves made by inmates who’d chipped away at the cell as the cell chipped away at them.

For a sound mind, those are daunting circumstances. But every prison in America has become a dumping ground for the mentally ill, and often the “worst of the worst”—some of society’s most unsound minds—are dumped in Ad Seg.

If an inmate acts up, we slam a steel door on him. Ad Seg allows a prison to run more efficiently for a period of time, but by placing a difficult offender in isolation you have not solved the problem—only delayed or more likely exacerbated it, not only for the prison, but ultimately for the public. Our job in corrections is to protect the community, not to release people who are worse than they were when they came in.

Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist and expert on confinement, described in a paper published last year the many psychological effects of solitary. Inmates reported nightmares, heart palpitations and “fear of impending nervous breakdowns.” He pointed to research from the 1980s that found that a third of those studied had experienced “paranoia, aggressive fantasies, and impulse control problems … In almost all instances the prisoners had not previously experienced any of these psychiatric reactions.”

Too often, these prisoners are “maxed out,” meaning they are released from solitary directly into society. In Colorado, in 2012, 140 people were released into the public from Ad Seg; last year, 70; so far in 2014, two.

The main light in my cellblock eventually turned off, and I fell into a fitful sleep, awakening every time a toilet flushed or an officer yanked on the doors to determine they were secure. Then there were the counts. According to the Ad Seg rules, within every 24-hour period there are five scheduled counts and at least two random ones. They are announced over the intercom and prisoners must stand with their feet visible to the officer as he looks through the door’s small window. As executive director, I praise the dedication, but as someone trying to sleep and rest my mind—forget it. I learned later that a number of inmates make earplugs out of toilet paper.

When 6:15 am and breakfast finally came, I brushed my teeth, washed my face, did two sets of push-ups, and made my bed. I looked out my small window, saw that it was still dark outside, and thought, now what?

I would spend a total of 20 hours in that cell. Which, compared with the typical stay, is practically a blink. On average, inmates who are sent to solitary in Colorado spend an average of 23 months there. Some spend 20 years.

Eventually, I broke a promise to myself and asked an officer what time it was. 11:10 am I felt as if I’d been there for days. I sat with my mind. How long would it take before Ad Seg chipped that away? I don’t know, but I’m confident that it would be a battle I would lose.

Inmates in Ad Seg have, of course, committed serious crimes. But I don’t believe that justifies the use of solitary confinement. My predecessor, Tom Clements, who was as courageous a reformer as they come, felt the same way. Mr. Clements had already gone a long way to reining in the overuse of solitary confinement in Colorado. In little more than two years, he and his staff cut it by more than half: from 1,505 inmates (among the highest rates in the country) to 726. As of January, the number was down to 593. (We have also gotten the number of severely mentally ill inmates in Ad Seg down to the single digits.)

But Mr. Clements had barely begun his work when he was assassinated last March. In a tragic irony, he was murdered in his home by a gang member who had been recently released directly from Ad Seg. This former inmate murdered a pizza delivery person, allegedly for the purpose of wearing his uniform to lure Mr. Clements to open his front door. A few days later, the man was killed in a shootout with the Texas police after he had shot an officer during a traffic stop. Whatever solitary confinement did to that former inmate and murderer, it was not for the better.

When I finally left my cell at 3 pm, I felt even more urgency for reform. If we can’t eliminate solitary confinement, at least we can strive to greatly reduce its use. Knowing that 97 percent of inmates are ultimately returned to their communities, doing anything less would be both counterproductive and inhumane.

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Groove of the Day

Listen to The Sensations performing “Let Me In”

22
Feb
14

on main street

robert-doisenau-the-kiss

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Groove of the Day

Listen to Joni Mitchell performing “In France They Kiss on Main Street”