Moments before he was sentenced to four life terms for killing his parents and two younger brothers, 16-year-old Nicholas W. Browning turned to his remaining relatives in a Towson courtroom yesterday and, tears streaming down his face, asked for their forgiveness.
Apparently too overcome to read the handwritten statement he had composed, he handed it to one of his lawyers. "I cannot make the pain go away," recited the attorney, Joshua R. Treem. "I never considered what effect my actions would have. I thought only of myself."
Browning admitted in a videotaped confession - played in court for the first time yesterday - that he had shot his parents, John and Tamara Browning, and his brothers, Gregory, 14, and Benjamin, 11, as they slept on Feb. 2, 2008, in their Cockeysville home.
Asked by a detective why he had shot them all in the head, Browning answered, "I just figured it would be quicker. It would just be instant."
The motive he provided was years of physical abuse and insults he said he had suffered at the hands of his father, a Towson attorney whose 9 mm pistol Nicholas Browning used.
But in pronouncing sentence, Baltimore County Circuit Judge Thomas J. Bollinger Sr. said he paid no heed to any allegation of abuse as a mitigating factor in the killings.
Bollinger, hewing closely to the recommendation of prosecutors, sentenced the former Dulaney High School student to two consecutive life terms and two concurrent life terms.
He could be eligible for parole in 30 years. Such releases for inmates serving life sentences require the governor's consent, however, and none have been granted since 1994.
Defense attorneys had asked the judge to impose a life sentence with all but 25 years suspended.
The judge remanded Browning to the custody of the Division of Correction but ordered that, if possible, he be admitted to the maximum-security Patuxent Institution in Jessup, a facility that operates separately from the Division of Correction and provides psychological treatment and educational programs unavailable in the state prisons. Prosecutors had urged that Browning serve his term exclusively in prison.
Bollinger said he was considering only the law in imposing sentence. Whether the crimes were "diabolically evil," he said, "is up to almighty God."
At yesterday's sentencing, prosecutors played a recording of a telephone conversation Wednesday between Browning, who has been held since the killings at the Baltimore County Detention Center, and a friend named Stephanie in which the young man referred to a murderer who escaped Jan. 17 from a Hagerstown prison.
"That's going to be me in a year," Browning told the girl, who was not otherwise identified. They both laughed.
Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, the parent agency for the Division of Correction and Patuxent, said the judge's order means that the staff in Jessup must evaluate Browning for as long as six months before deciding whether to accept him for long-term treatment.
"Patuxent gets a lot of recommendations, but they don't have to accept all of them," Vernarelli said. About 150 inmates - out of a population of 860, all but 110 of them male - are enrolled in the facility's Youthful Offender Program. If he is accepted there but fails to properly complete the treatment program, Browning would be sent to prison to serve out the remainder of his sentence.
As he entered the packed courtroom yesterday morning, in shackles and escorted by two sheriff's deputies, Browning smiled at his relatives in the front row. Later, his paternal grandmother, Margaret Browning, who is suffering from a severe bronchial ailment, addressed the court in a hoarse whisper, her remarks repeated audibly by another relative.
"I know in my heart, from my heart, that my son would want help for his son," she said. "That's all I'm asking, that he get help."
Treem, the defense attorney, said no one could excuse what Browning did but asserted that the boy had lived for years in a household filled with "substance-abuse issues" and "marred with domestic violence between the parents" and against the children. The father's anger was fueled by alcohol, Treem said, and directed mostly at his eldest son.
In a very different account, John Browning's former law partner, Keith Truffer, told the judge that the man he had known for 20 years had a "tremendous sense of generosity," with a "pleasant, affable nature," a ready smile and a "charming manner of speech."
Dr. Neil H. Blumberg, a forensic psychiatrist, testified at a hearing in July that the teenager was in a "trance-like state" at the time he shot his father and the others.
That account was discounted yesterday by Leo Ryan Jr., a deputy state's attorney, who told the court that the defendant's actions in the hours after the murders show he was "not a victimized adolescent in a trance-like state, but a predator untroubled by the carnage he had wrought."