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Minor accused of murder will have closed court proceedings

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  1. Libel and Privacy
A court proceeding to determine whether an 11-year-old Pennsylvania boy killed his father’s pregnant fiancée and her unborn son will…

A court proceeding to determine whether an 11-year-old Pennsylvania boy killed his father’s pregnant fiancée and her unborn son will remain closed to the public, a state appellate court ruled last week.

The Superior Court of Pennsylvania affirmed a juvenile court order that the delinquency proceeding of Jordan Brown, now 13, should remain closed because the government's interest in protecting the privacy of juveniles outweighs the public's right of access to the proceeding.

Under Pennsylvania law, juveniles are not charged with crimes but rather with committing “delinquent acts.”

Accordingly, juveniles do not have a trial; they have an adjudicatory hearing. If the court finds that the child committed the delinquent act, the child is not convicted but instead declared an adjudicated delinquent.

The Pennsylvania Juvenile Act provides for varying degrees of openness in juvenile proceedings. For example, the general public may not, under the statute, be excluded from proceedings where a minor who committed certain serious felonies, including murder, is at least 12 years old. But judges have the discretion to close juvenile delinquency proceedings involving younger minors.

Despite these statutory restrictions, however, there is a presumption, under both the Pennsylvania Constitution and common law, that all court proceedings, including juvenile delinquency proceedings, are open to the public. However, the court noted in In the Interest of J.B., a party seeking to keep such juvenile delinquency proceedings closed may rebut this constitutional presumption of openness by demonstrating that closure serves a compelling government interest and no less restrictive means exist to serve that interest.

Three western Pennsylvania newspapers — the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the New Castle News and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review — sought access to the juvenile delinquency proceeding of Brown, who is accused of shooting 26-year-old Kenzie Houk, his father’s nine-month pregnant fiancée, on Feb. 20, 2009, as she slept. Her unborn son died of oxygen deprivation.

Brown was arrested and charged as an adult because under Pennsylvania law, homicide charges cannot originate in juvenile court. Details of the case, including Brown’s name, were reported. The case was later moved to juvenile court.

“The press and the public had access to every portion of the proceeding until the judge decided to … move [the case] to juvenile court,” said Ellis Kunka, a lawyer for the Post-Gazette. “At that point, there had been two to three years of public interest.”

The newspapers argued that because the case had already received extensive public exposure, including a 2010 spot on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Brown no longer maintained a privacy interest. The court, however, disagreed.

“Indeed, although circumstances surrounding the alleged delinquent act have been presented to the public due to proceedings in criminal court, it is still unknown what additional facts and evidence yet unrevealed would be offered at the upcoming juvenile proceedings,” the court said.

Moreover, the court concluded there were no less restrictive means other than total closure of the proceeding to protect the minor's privacy.

“This Court has serious reservations about its ability to ensure that any minor child can be properly rehabilitated if the [proceeding is] constantly being review[ed] and analyzed by the News Media and subsequently by the public in general,” the court said, quoting the analysis of the juvenile court.

Ronald Barber, attorney for the Tribune-Review, said the ruling in the case transforms the Juvenile Act into “an iron curtain.”

“No matter how outrageous the circumstances are, a [juvenile delinquency proceeding] is going to be closed,” he said. “We had thought if there was ever a case for openness, it would be Jordan Brown.”

The delinquency proceeding is no different than a murder trial, Barber said, and the community has a compelling interest in learning what happens in the courtroom and whether Brown can be rehabilitated.

Kunka expressed a similar sentiment, saying that the public had a particular interest in Brown’s case because of his young age.

“We feel that in this instance, when you have a crime of such a horrific nature, including the juvenile’s father going on national television and talking about it, we had at least a vested interest,” he said.

The public will not have access to court records and files and will not be notified of when the delinquency proceeding takes place, though the judge may release his ultimate finding once the proceeding has ended, according to Kunka.

“To say we were disappointed in the ruling would be an understatement,” Barber said, adding that there are no plans for further appeal for the Tribune-Review. Kunka said he was unsure whether the Post-Gazette would appeal.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· Pennsylvania — Open Courts Compendium (Proceedings involving minors – delinquency)

· The News Media & The Law Summer 2009 (Juvenile Justice and Openness)

· L.A. judge opens juvenile courts to news organizations

· Guidelines reiterate openness in New York family courts