Teen 'trance-like,' doctor testifies

Cockeysville youth to be tried as adult in killing of parents, 2 brothers, court rules

July 30, 2008|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,Sun reporter

A Cockeysville teenager accused of killing his parents and two younger brothers was in a "trance-like state" when they were shot, one by one, as they slept in the family's home in February, a forensic psychiatrist testifying for the defense told a judge yesterday.

Taking the stand at a hearing to determine whether 16-year-old Nicholas W. Browning should be tried in the juvenile system or remain in adult court, Dr. Neil H. Blumberg said the teenager told him he did not recall pulling the trigger but remembered hearing the fatal shots. The psychiatrist said the killings followed an escalation in verbal and physical abuse by Browning's parents that the defendant said began after he entered middle school.

But after several hours of testimony, the judge hearing the case denied the defense request to transfer the case to juvenile court.

"There is certainly nothing normal about this case," Baltimore County Circuit Judge Thomas J. Bollinger Sr. said in announcing his ruling.

The decision, which cannot be appealed before the case goes to trial, means the teenager will be tried on four counts of first-degree murder in adult court, where prosecutors have filed notice of their intention to seek four sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole. He is not eligible for the death penalty because he is under 18.

Had Browning been waived back to juvenile court and been convicted - or adjudicated delinquent, as such findings are called in that court system - he would have remained under the jurisdiction of the juvenile system only until his 21st birthday.

In his closing argument, prosecutor Leo Ryan Jr. told the judge that it was difficult to imagine any treatment delivered in that short a period of time that "could give the court any confidence about future public safety."

Browning, who was a sophomore at Dulaney High School, is accused of fatally shooting his parents, John and Tamara Browning, and his brothers, Gregory, 14, and Benjamin, 11, in the early morning hours of Feb. 2.

The deaths occurred a week before the defendant's 16th birthday. Had Browning been 16 at the time of the killings, the case would not have been eligible for a transfer to juvenile court.

Yesterday's hearing drew a number of friends and relatives of the Browning family as well as courthouse employees and attorneys curious about the case. The defendant's relatives declined to comment after the hearing, and lawyers in the case could not do so because of a gag order imposed by the judge.

Browning sat rigidly throughout the hearing, staring straight ahead with his hands in his lap, occasionally twirling a pen.

Blumberg - who has testified in other high-profile cases, including the capital murder trial of a twice-convicted killer who strangled a fellow inmate on a prison bus and the trial of a former priest accused of sexually abusing a man who shot him years later - was the only witness to take the stand.

His testimony revealed chilling new details about the killings.

The psychiatrist testified that the defendant said he first contemplated killing his parents while walking home from a friend's house after midnight on Feb. 2. Intending to sneak back out with his parents' sport utility vehicle so he and his friends could go joyriding, the teenager "began ruminating and fantasizing," Blumberg said. "Wouldn't it be nice if they weren't here?" he quoted Browning as thinking. "I could do what I want. There would be no restrictions."

The witness said Browning envisioned living in the house without his family and imagined enjoying solitary dinners without anyone criticizing him or back-handing him at the dinner table, as he said his father routinely did.

"It was like a daydream as he was walking over," Blumberg said.

Based on 14 hours of interviews over seven occasions with the defendant, the psychiatrist offered the judge this account:

Upon reaching his family's home, Browning went to the workroom in the basement where his father had left a pistol that he had been cleaning. Finding the gun loaded, Browning pulled back the slide and slipped another clip into his pocket.

Feeling as if he were floating, he walked upstairs, where he found his father asleep on the couch. The movie The Da Vinci Code played on the TV.

"He had no recollection of pulling the trigger, but the next thing he heard was a bang," Blumberg testified.

Walking upstairs, Browning found his mother asleep in bed. He again heard a bang, although it was muffled this time.

Although he had not set out to kill his brothers, they were also shot in their beds. At that point, Browning heard his mother breathing. He returned to her bedroom and "heard another shot."

Browning then decided to try to make it look as though a robbery had occurred. He knocked over his mother's jewelry box and stacked the family's video game systems near the door.

He eventually returned to his friend's house, where the teenagers watched a movie and went to sleep.

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