Mental state might be key in murder trial

History of abuse, evidence of psychological disorder could factor in defense of boy accused of killing family

August 03, 2008|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,Sun reporter

A teenage boy, numbed by what he described as emotional and physical abuse by his parents, was walking home one winter night from a friend's house when he began fantasizing about a life without them.

Finding a loaded handgun at his house, the 15-year-old "floated" up the stairs and, one by one, pointed the gun at the heads of his mother, father and two younger brothers. Although he does not recall pulling the trigger, he told a forensic psychiatrist that he remembered hearing muffled bangs with each shot.

The chilling account - offered by Nicholas W. Browning to a doctor examining him to determine whether he should be tried for murder in the juvenile system or remain in adult court - cannot be used by prosecutors at trial to convict him of the four killings.

But it will likely play a pivotal role as the teenager's attorneys craft a defense that focuses on his mental state, either in an attempt to prove he might be guilty but not criminally responsible for the deaths or to argue that the shootings did not amount to first-degree murder, defense lawyers and legal experts said.

"Maybe they can mitigate it down to second-degree [murder] or manslaughter," said Brian Murphy, a criminal defense attorney and former Baltimore City prosecutor. "Although it sounds, on its surface, as premeditated as you can get. He walks back, gets the gun, loads it, cocks it, shoots one, walks to next room, shoots another and goes on like that. It's not quite a self-defense argument - because that would be crazy - but maybe it mitigates the premeditation. Kind of like a delayed provocation."

The Dulaney Valley High School sophomore, now 16, lost his bid last week to avoid being tried 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 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 as they slept in their Cockeysville home. He had walked the three miles there from a friend's home.

Police said Browning later admitted that he had killed all four members of his family.

That confession will likely be challenged by the defense team at a pretrial motions hearing. Prosecutors cannot use against Browning at trial what he told the psychiatrists who evaluated him for last week's hearing because, according to state law, information gathered to determine whether a case will be heard in juvenile court cannot be used later to convict someone.

Lawyers handling the case cannot comment on it because of a gag order imposed by the judge.

The testimony of psychiatrist Neil H. Blumberg, who was called by the defense, failed to persuade Baltimore County Circuit Judge Thomas J. Bollinger Sr. that the case should be tried in juvenile court. The defendant's mental condition was one of five factors - along with his age, his amenability to treatment, the nature of the crime and public safety - that the judge had to weigh.

But experts said the evidence of Browning's mental state and any mistreatment that he might have suffered at home could play a more important role at trial. Although court-appointed mental health experts attributed the killings to an isolated anti-social act by the teenager rather than a mental condition, Blumberg made a diagnosis of dissociative disorder.

The mental illness is marked by memory loss beyond normal forgetfulness; mental health problems, including depression and anxiety; a sense of detachment; and distorted perceptions.

"Something was radically wrong," Blumberg testified last week. "It is very clear that this was a deeply disturbed young man in a deeply disturbed family in which a gun was available and a tragedy happened."

He told the judge that Browning's parents routinely berated him - and sometimes slapped or backhanded him - over his grades, his appearance, his treatment of his younger brothers, his religious convictions and his morals. The father once grabbed him by his helmet and threw him against a fence after the boy disrespected a referee at a lacrosse game and, on another occasion, kicked him in the stomach at their house after a dispute with one of his brothers, Blumberg testified.

Byron L. Warnken, a University of Baltimore law school professor, said the evidence of emotional and physical abuse, if supported by other witnesses, might not meet the stringent standard that Maryland requires to prove a defendant is guilty but not criminally responsible - the state's equivalent of an insanity defense.

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