Ryan T. Furlough, the Ellicott City teenager who fatally laced his best friend's soda with cyanide last year, was sentenced yesterday to life in prison by a judge who said he did not want to cut off any chance that the 19-year-old could one day earn his release.
The sentence - a middle ground between life without parole, which prosecutors sought, and the shorter term requested by defense attorneys - was imposed at the end of an emotional four-hour hearing that brought a simmering debate over the use of antidepressant drugs by youths to the forefront.
It also left both sides disappointed.
For Furlough's mother, it was further proof that the judicial system is unwilling to acknowledge her belief that the antidepressants prescribed for her son led him to kill his Centennial High School classmate and friend Ben Vassiliev, 17.
"This is not an isolated case. I wish it was. ... What does it take for our society to wake up? We've got the wakeup call now," Susan Furlough said.
For Vassiliev's family, it meant an uncertain future filled with parole hearings.
"It's not over. This will never end for me now," said Erik Vassiliev, Ben's 15-year-old brother.
The teenager's father, Walter Vassiliev, said last night that his son's death should have been enough to convince the judge that Ryan Furlough "should be put away for good."
"Ryan Furlough can be treated and he can be medicated, but he can never be rehabilitated," he said. "Ryan Furlough needs to be incarcerated forever and ever because you can't cure evil."
Circuit Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr. said he was not prepared to rule out any chance that Furlough, who had no previous criminal record or history of substance abuse, could one day convince a parole board that he deserved to be freed.
"There's no indication ... that he's a hardened criminal," Kane said before imposing the sentence for first-degree murder.
Yesterday in court, Vassiliev's parents described a promising life cut short by their son's trust and desire to help a lonely friend. Ben Vassiliev, they said, was a caring and talented teen-ager who loved life and saw beauty in everything.
"Sunrise and sunset, I always think of Ben," said Vassiliev's mother, Karen Dale-Barrett, her voice thick with emotion.
"I always loved Ben," Walter Vassiliev said. "But as he evolved into this magnificent human being, I grew to admire him and to respect him."
When he went to Ryan Furlough's house, in the 3500 block of Rhode Valley Trail, to play video games and watch a movie Jan. 3 last year, he and his parents couldn't know what had been lurking in Furlough's mind - about the months of Internet research into cyanide and the poison stashed under a basement couch, said Senior Assistant State's Attorney Mary Murphy.
Furlough later told investigators that he felt slighted and feared that his friend no longer cared when Vassiliev did not give him presents on his birthday and holidays.
Vassiliev went into seizures that night in the basement and died five days later.
"It was a crime that struck close to home. Who can imagine sending your child to a friend's home ... and having that trust and that friendship violated in such, such a horrendous way," said Murphy. She called the killing "perhaps one of the most calculated, diabolical, well-planned and executed murders perhaps we'll ever see in our lifetime."
Defense attorneys said a psychiatrist's decision to prescribe high doses of the antidepressant Effexor for Furlough, who was depressed and doing poorly in school, might have affected his thought processes.
Ann Blake Tracy, a Utah-based advocate who said she has studied the adverse affects of drugs such as Effexor for 15 years, told Kane that the drug might have left Furlough confused and homicidal.
"I do not believe he is capable of committing murder in any other way," Tracy said. "I believe it was chemically induced, without question."
Susan Furlough told Kane that since her son has changed medications, she has seen a change.
"I just think that as a person and as a human, he's just now coming around to be the person and human he used to be, which is a good person," she said.
Furlough offered no explanations, just an apology to Vassiliev's family and his own.
He is certain that his former friends despise him and wishes he could undo the past, he told Kane yesterday.
"Every day I am tormented by remembrances of Ben," Furlough said before turning to face Vassiliev's family and saying, "I am truly sorry for the actions that I've committed."
Later, Susan Furlough said her son had told her that he wants to work with her to get drugs such as Effexor off the market and help others avoid the same "nightmare."