Trial due to start in teen's poisoning

Student from Ellicott City accused of killing friend

May 09, 2004|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

An Ellicott City teen-ager accused of killing a Centennial High School classmate by spiking his soda with cyanide is scheduled to go on trial tomorrow in a case that his lawyer said has destroyed two young men's lives.

With a reported confession from Ryan T. Furlough, 19, and a search that turned up cyanide packaging and labels in his home, the case likely will be a challenging one for defense attorneys.

Even though his lawyers withdrew Furlough's insanity plea last month, they are expected to focus their efforts on their client's psychological state Jan. 3 last year - the day Benjamin Edward Vassiliev, 17, went into seizures while playing video games in Furlough's basement. Vassiliev died five days later.

Whether mental health testimony will be allowed into evidence remained in question last week. Prosecutors, noting the decision to withdraw the insanity plea, have argued such testimony is "impermissible."

And while Howard Circuit Court Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr., who is expected to preside over the trial, has left the door open for psychiatric testimony, he has said lawyers for both sides can revisit his decision later. The trial is expected to last more than a week.

At stake is the potential sentence Furlough could receive if convicted - up to life without parole for first-degree murder or something much less if defense lawyers can convince jurors that Furlough had mental health problems that impaired his state of mind.

"Ryan Furlough needs an advocate who will be able to argue on his behalf and try to mitigate the degree of the crime," Joseph Murtha, one of his two defense attorneys, said last week.

Vassiliev's father said he is seeking "some sense of justice" - and some answers - for the killing of his son, whom friends and family have praised as talented, creative and humorous.

"I still can't even understand or comprehend that this has happened. It seems like a nightmare," said Walter Vassiliev, who is among the 41 potential state witnesses listed in court documents. "I guess I want to try to understand why. Why did this happen? I wonder if I'll ever be able to find out why."

The case has drawn attention with its mixture of unusual circumstances: cyanide purchased online with a mother's credit card and, prosecutors say, slipped into the drink of the popular Centennial High School senior. Investigators have alleged that Furlough planned the killing for two months. Defense attorneys have said that Furlough, who had turned 18 three weeks before Vassiliev's death, also initially planned to kill himself.

From the first day, Furlough's lawyers have sought to focus on his psychiatric problems. According to a defense expert, the teenager suffered from depression and an adjustment disorder and was being treated with Effexor, a drug that has recently been under international scrutiny for its potential side-effects on younger patients - including hostility and suicidal thoughts and actions.

"Clearly, he was suffering from a mental disorder. There's no doubt in my mind it impaired his judgment," Murtha said.

Furlough, who is in the Howard County Detention Center, has been held without bail since his arrest.

Senior Assistant State's Attorney Mary Murphy, who is trying the case with State's Attorney Timothy J. McCrone, said she was "ethically bound" not to discuss the pending case.

With the trial looming, Walter Vassiliev said the past few weeks have been difficult but that he wanted to focus on the lost potential of his son, who he said was artistically gifted and excelled at whatever he tried.

Benjamin Vassiliev was writing a novel, learning Japanese, Korean and Russian on his own, and had a black belt in the Korean art of sword fighting, according to his father and speakers at a memorial service. One friend said he respected the boy's "genius."

He wanted to go to school to study filmmaking, Walter Vassiliev said.

"My mind, my heart, my soul can't ... comprehend or accept that he's gone," he said. "Benjamin was not only my son, but he was also the most beautiful human being I've ever known."

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