Testimony describes teen's mental state

Accused killer depressed, heavily medicated, expert for the defense says

Prosecutors cite intense planning

May 15, 2004|By Lisa Goldberg and Laura Cadiz | Lisa Goldberg and Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Ryan Furlough was so depressed and so heavily medicated that he could not rationally make decisions in the days and weeks before he slipped cyanide into a friend's soda can, a defense expert testified yesterday.

The explanation that Furlough, 19, gave to police and mental health experts for his decision to poison 17-year-old Benjamin Edward Vassiliev on Jan. 3 last year -- that his friend no longer gave him birthday and Christmas presents -- shows his impaired mental condition, even though he planned the killing for months, Dr. Michael K. Spodak said.

Vassiliev, a popular Centennial High School senior, died five days later.

"He's deciding a life-and-death decision based on the kind of present he's going to get for Christmas," Spodak said in Howard Circuit Court during the fourth and final day of testimony in Furlough's murder trial. "Being slighted for a present shows the inability to reason and weigh things."

But a prosecution expert said the intense planning that went into the poisoning -- including his detailed Internet research and his determination of how much cyanide it would take to kill someone -- shows that his decision-making ability was intact.

The forgotten presents were symbolic of a friendship that was falling apart and signs that Furlough was being cast aside and replaced in Vassiliev's life by a girlfriend, Dr. Christiane Tellefsen said in rebuttal.

"It's not just being rejected by Ben," she said. "It was being replaced by this girl."

Prosecutors have contended that jealousy over the girlfriend, who shared a kiss with Furlough at the end of their junior year, in 2002, sparked the killing. The girlfriend, Caroline Smith, 18, testified this week that her friendship with Furlough grew complicated after the kiss.

Yesterday's mental health testimony came over objections by prosecutors, who contended that the opinions of the defense's psychiatrist were inadmissible because Furlough withdrew his insanity plea before the trial.

But Howard Circuit Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr. allowed Spodak to testify, setting the stage for defense attorneys to argue to jurors that Furlough's state of mind was so impaired that he could not be guilty of first-degree premeditated murder.

Closing arguments are scheduled to begin Monday morning.

The expert testimony came after a morning that included Susan Furlough's accounts of her son's worsening mental state through his high school years -- and a psychiatrist's decision to treat his condition with increasing doses of the antidepressant Effexor.

Her son had struggled in school and took summer classes each year of high school to make up for failing grades, she said. Susan Furlough said she took her son to a psychologist and a psychiatrist to find the cause.

Ryan Furlough was given a prescription for Wellbutrin and later Effexor. Despite the treatment, she said, her son continued to do so poorly at Centennial that he was ranked second to last in his junior class. In the spring of 2002, the doctor increased the dosage of Effexor, which is under international scrutiny for its side effects in youths.

By the end of the summer of 2002, doctors told Susan Furlough that she and her husband should no longer help their son.

"He would sink or swim on his own," she said. "From then on, my son would close down."

In the months before Vassiliev's death, Ryan Furlough became more aggressive and angry and stopped interacting with his parents, she said. He was distant and "flat," she said.

"He didn't seem to be living," she said. "He seemed to be just existing."

After Vassiliev collapsed in the Furloughs' Ellicott City basement while playing video games, Susan Furlough said, she and her son went to Howard County General Hospital. During the ride, Ryan Furlough was "disconnected, like a zombie," she said.

Spodak, who sat in the courtroom during Susan Furlough's testimony, said the symptoms she described were typical of major depression. The Effexor could have made some of the symptoms worse, he said.

Furlough's mental state was so impaired that it distorted his ability to think, deliberate and reason, he said.

But Tellefsen said Furlough's animosity started more than a year before the poisoning, when Vassiliev neglected to give his friend a birthday present.

Although Furlough repeatedly told investigators that he wanted to die and lamented his inability to take his life, he was "far more concerned" with Vassiliev and planned the event in detail over months, she said.

"It's deliberate behavior that's going on here," she said.

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