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10 August 2010
Further information on UA 97/10 (28 April 2010) – Legal concern/Juvenile at risk of life without parole
The Pennsylvania Superior Court has agreed to review Jordan Brown’s appeal against a court decision to try him as an adult for the killing of Kenzie Houk, his father’s fiancée. If tried in an adult court, the 12-year-old boy could be sentenced to life imprisonment with no parole. This sentence, when imposed on anyone who was under 18 years old at the time of the crime, violates international law.
On 27 July, the Pennsylvania Superior Court issued an order granting a review of the appeal. Jordan Brown's lawyers and the state Attorney General must file their arguments for this review by 13 September 2010.
Jordan Brown’s lawyers had filed the appeal following a judge’s decision to deny the transfer of the trial to juvenile court. Jordan Brown, who was 11 at the time of the crime, has been automatically charged for trial in adult court, as required by Pennsylvania law for cases involving murder. He has been charged with two counts of homicide, because the victim was eight and a half months pregnant and her unborn child also died. If convicted of first-degree murder in an adult court, Jordan Brown would be sentenced to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole.
The Superior Court’s decision to review the appeal provides a real opportunity for Jordan Brown’s case to be transferred to juvenile court. However, Amnesty International is deeply concerned that the State Attorney General, who is in charge of the prosecution, may continue to seek an adult trial for Jordan Brown.
A life without parole sentence when imposed on a defendant who was under 18 at the time of the crime violates international law and standards which are almost universally accepted around the world. These standards recognize that, however serious the crime, children, who are still developing physically, mentally and emotionally, do not have the same level of culpability as adults and require special treatment in the criminal justice system appropriate to their youth and immaturity. The standards emphasize that when children come into conflict with the law, the primary objectives should be the child's best interests and the potential for his or her successful reintegration into society. Life imprisonment without parole clearly is inconsistent with this international obligation.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the USA ratified in 1992, specifically acknowledges the need for special treatment of children in the criminal justice system and emphasizes the importance of their rehabilitation. Article 14(4) of the ICCPR states: “In the case of juvenile persons, the procedure shall be such as will take account of their age and the desirability of promoting their rehabilitation”. In 2006, the UN Human Rights Committee, the expert body established by the ICCPR to oversee implementation of the treaty, reminded the USA that sentencing children to life imprisonment without parole is incompatible with the ICCPR. It called on the USA to ensure that no children were subjected to this sentence.
The 193 countries which have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) have further agreed to be bound by the principle, enshrined in Article 37(a), that no person under the age of 18 at the time of the offence should be sentenced to “life imprisonment without the possibility of release”. The USA is the only country apart from Somalia not to have ratified the CRC. However, the USA has signed the Convention and as a signatory, the USA is bound under international law to do nothing which would defeat the object and purpose of the treaty. Article 37(b) of the Convention also calls upon states to use imprisonment against a child “only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.”
In a General Comment on children’s rights in juvenile justice issued in 2007, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the expert body established under the CRC, emphasized that no children should be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The Committee reminded those countries which sentence children to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole that this punishment must “fully comply with and strive for the realization of the aims of juvenile justice”, including that the child should receive “education, treatment, and care aiming at his/her release, reintegration and ability to assume a constructive role in society”.
The USA is believed to stand alone in sentencing children to life without parole. Although several countries technically permit the practice, Amnesty International knows of no cases outside the USA where such a sentence has been imposed in recent years. Jordan Brown is the youngest person that Amnesty International knows of who is currently at risk of being sentenced to life without parole. However, there are at least 2,500 people in the USA serving life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were under 18. Jordan Brown's case is therefore starkly illustrative of a wider problem, and the organization is taking this action as part of its efforts to persuade authorities in the USA to bring their country into line with international standards on the treatment of child offenders (see USA: The rest of their lives: Life without Parole for Child Offenders in the United States: a joint Human Rights Watch/Amnesty International Report http://www.amnesty.org/en/
RECOMMENDED ACTION: Please send appeals to arrive as quickly as possible: - Explaining that you are not seeking to excuse the killing of Kenzie Houk;
- pointing out that international law prohibits life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for anyone who was under 18 years old at the time of the crime, and that this principle of international law is recognized and respected around the world;
- expressing concern that the state is seeking to have Jordan Brown tried in adult court which would expose him upon conviction for first-degree murder to a mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole;
- noting that the Superior Court’s decision to review the appeal provides the state with the opportunity to reconsider its position;
- calling on the prosecution to meet its international obligation to ensure that Jordan Brown not be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, and appealing for it therefore to drop its pursuit of a trial in adult court.
Pennsylvania Attorney General
Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General
16th Floor, Strawberry Square
Harrisburg, PA 17120, USA
Fax: 717 787 8242
Salutation: Dear Attorney General
Jordan Brown’s lawyer
David H. Acker, Esquire
25 North Mill Street
500 First Merit Plaza
New Castle, PA 16101, USA
PLEASE SEND APPEALS IMMEDIATELY.
Check with the AIUSA Urgent Action office if sending appeals after 13 September 2010.
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