Howard teen drops insanity defense in fatal '03 poisoning

Furlough's trial set May 10 in death of classmate, 17

April 23, 2004|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Lawyers for an Ellicott City teen-ager accused of fatally poisoning a classmate last year by spiking his soda with cyanide have decided not to pursue an insanity defense.

Instead, they hope that a Howard County judge will allow them to present evidence at trial that Ryan T. Furlough, 19, was so emotionally and mentally impaired at the time that he could not have willfully planned Benjamin Edward Vassiliev's death - and therefore could not possibly be guilty of first-degree premeditated murder, according to information presented in new court filings and during a court hearing yesterday.

The argument, if allowed by Howard Circuit Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr., could buttress any attempt to convince a judge or jury that Furlough should be convicted, at most, of lesser murder charges - and spared the possible life sentence that comes with a first-degree murder conviction, lawyers said.

But prosecutors argued yesterday that because Furlough is no longer pleading insanity, his lawyers should not be allowed to present evidence that he lacked what is called "specific intent" to commit the crime. Such testimony is "impermissible" under rules of evidence, said prosecutor Mary Murphy, who likened the change in the defense's posture to "last-minute maneuvering."

Kane did not rule yesterday, but he gave prosecutors, who said the defense had provided them only a skeleton report of its expert's conclusions, a day to find out more about what led to that expert's findings. A second hearing is scheduled for this morning.

Joseph Murtha, one of Furlough's lawyers, said the decision last week to withdraw the not criminally responsible plea came after he and attorney Jan O'Connor, who has represented the teen-ager since his arrest 15 months ago, consulted with their expert, reviewed a report prepared by state mental health officials and looked at other factors in the case.

A report prepared by the defense expert says that Furlough was unable, when he slipped cyanide into Vassiliev's Vanilla Coke on Jan. 3 last year, to "form specific intent ... based on his mental and emotional condition" and "possessed no reason or understanding" because of emotional trauma and distress.

Vassiliev, a 17-year-old Centennial High School senior, died five days later.

Furlough's murder trial is scheduled for May 10.

According to charging documents, the two teens were playing video games in Furlough's basement in the 3500 block of Rhode Valley Trail, when Vassiliev started having seizures. Vassiliev had a cyanide level that was two to three times above the upper limits of what is considered normal, according to the documents.

Furlough later admitted in a police interview that he used his mother's credit card to buy cyanide over the Internet and that he spiked Vassiliev's soda, according to charging documents. Investigators found a packaging and a shipping label for potassium cyanide with Furlough's name on it in his home, according to the documents.

Furlough told investigators that he had been thinking of killing Vassiliev since the fall, according to the documents.

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