Boy's claim of innocence prompted judge to try him as adult
A Pennsylvania boy who was 11 years old when he allegedly shot and killed his father's pregnant fiancee could find himself being the youngest person ever sentenced to life without parole.
Human rights campaigners have said the case shows the US' justice system to be unusually harsh towards juvenile offenders, and argue that a life sentence for the boy could violate international law.
Prosecutors allege that Jordan Brown, now 13, shot and killed 26-year-old Kenzie Houk as she slept in her home in Lawrence County, near Pittsburgh, in February, 2009. Houk was pregnant with a nearly full-term child at the time. Brown was charged with two counts of homicide.
Brown's lawyers on Tuesday argued an appeal against a judge's earlier decision to have the adolescent tried as an adult.
Pennsylvania's laws on juvenile trials are among the least accommodating in the country, with juvenile suspects in homicide cases automatically tried as adults, unless a judge decides otherwise.
According to WTAE in Pittsburgh, the judge's original decision to try Brown as an adult was based on Brown's refusal to admit guilt. Brown's lawyers argued Wednesday that the decision violated his right to be presumed innocent, as well as his right to avoid self-incrimination.
Deborah Houk, the victim's mother, had little sympathy for Jordan Brown's plight.
"He knew what he was doing. He killed my baby," she said of Brown in an interview not long after the murders. The Houk family has put up a website attempting to dispel a growing movement seeking to defend Brown.
But human rights group Amnesty International said that Brown is the youngest person the international organization knows of anywhere in the world facing a life sentence without possibility of parole.
"It is shocking that anyone this young could face life imprisonment without parole, let alone in a country which labels itself as a progressive force for human rights," Susan Lee, Amnesty International's director for the Americas, said in a statement.
Amnesty notes that the US is one of only two countries in the world who have refused to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Somalia is the other country.
Jordan Brown is the youngest person known to Amnesty International to be currently at risk of being sentenced to life imprisonment with no parole. However, there are already at least 2,500 people in the US serving life imprisonment without parole for crimes committed when they were under 18.
According to the Guardian, Pennsylvania has 450 juveniles serving life sentences, more than any other state.
The Supreme Court has been moving in recent years towards greater protection for juvenile offenders. It ended the death penalty for people under 18 in 2005, and last year made homicide the only crime for which juveniles can be given a life sentence.
The Washington-based Sentencing Project told the Guardian that the US is the only country in the world that has juveniles serving life without parole. "That leads to only two conclusions: either kids in the US are far more violent than those in the rest of the world, or the US has developed uniquely harsh sentences."
Jordan Brown's father, whose fiancee was killed that night in 2009, agreed with the Sentencing Project, saying his son was too young to fully understand the consequences of his actions.
"Try to explain to a 12-year-old what the rest of your life means," he said. "It's incomprehensible for him."