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Oral Arguments

The attorney for a youth who was adjudicated as delinquent for murders he allegedly committed at age 11 argued before the state Supreme Court that filing a post-dispositional motion was unnecessary for preserving an appeal based on the weight of the evidence.

Attorney Dennis Elisco of New Castle, Pa., who represented defendant Jordan Brown in In the Interest of J.B., argued during the high court’s oral argument session March 12 that the weight of the evidence issue had been properly preserved in both closing arguments and the Rule 1925(b) statement, and therefore the Superior Court’s decision to remand the juvenile murder case should stand.

However, Justice J. Michael Eakin questioned whether it was possible for closing arguments to claim the court’s decision was against the weight of the evidence, since the court had yet to render a ruling when the closing arguments were made.

“Every closing argument is a sufficiency of the evidence argument. That is not the same thing as a weight of the evidence argument. You can’t raise a [weight of the evidence argument] before there’s a decision,” Eakin said. “So, when then did you raise it?”

Elisco said the Rule 1925(b) statement was identical to the closing arguments, and that the weight of the evidence issue was specifically raised.

Attorney James P. Barker, who argued before the high court on behalf of the state Office of the Attorney General, said holding that closing arguments are “pretty much the same thing” as a post-dispositional motion would provide no guidance for the courts and could lead to purely contextual rulings.

Barker asked the court to remand the case for reconsideration of the weight of the evidence claim.

The Supreme Court arguments were the latest in a high-profile murder case in which the defendant was initially prosecuted as an adult, until Lawrence County President Judge Dominick Motto decertified the case as an adult trial and transferred the proceedings to juvenile court. During the first few years of the case, it appeared that Brown might be the youngest person in U.S. history to face life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The case began in February 2009, when State Police found Kenzie Houk and her unborn male child dead at the home she shared with Brown’s father. She died from a shotgun wound to the back of the head and the unborn child died from lack of oxygen as a result of Houk’s death, court papers said.

Brown was charged with homicide and homicide of an unborn child, both first-degree felonies, in April 2009. After the trial, the juvenile court adjudicated Brown as delinquent and in need of treatment, supervision and rehabilitation.

Brown appealed the decision, filing a concise statement of errors pursuant to Rule 1925(b). The sole issue raised was whether the juvenile court abused its discretion because its decision was against the weight of the evidence.

Judge Christine L. Donohue, who wrote the Superior Court’s majority opinion, initially addressed whether failure to file a post-dispositional motion waived the appeal. She noted that the court found in In re R.N. that appellants must preserve issues by first raising them in juvenile court, and failure to raise the issues waived the appeal. However, she said the state Supreme Court’s 2012 holding in In re D.S. called the R.N. ruling into question.

According to Donohue, the Supreme Court declined to strictly apply the waiver because a post-adjudication motion is optional, there is no avenue for Post-Conviction Relief Act appeals, and the juvenile court can provide its own analysis of the challenges in its Rule 1925(a) opinion.

“Thus, we decide, based upon our Supreme Court’s rationale in D.S., that failure to file a post-trial motion in a juvenile matter raising a weight of the evidence claim does not result in waiver of that claim,” Donohue said.

After determining that the issue was preserved, Donohue said the juvenile court lacked enough information to conclude that Brown had committed the murders.

According to Barker, the D.S. case was distinguishable because it involved a sufficiency of the evidence claim and not a weight of the evidence claim, which involves a more stringent standard of review.

However, Justice Debra M. Todd said the D.S. ruling could be viewed as a relaxing of the doctrine in light of the limited appeals available to juveniles, and Justice Max Baer said such a strict adherence could be tricky for defendants to navigate.

“Under your argument, there can never be an appeal of the weight of evidence until there’s a post-dispositional motion?” Justice Max Baer asked, noting that the motion is optional. “Doesn’t this make the rules a trap for the unwary?”

Max Mitchell can be contacted at 215-557-2354 or mmitchell@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @MMitchellTLI. •