But yesterday, as Baltimore County prosecutor S. Ann Brobst read the gruesome details of the night that Browning methodically shot his parents and two younger brothers as they slept in their Cockeysville home, the 16-year-old removed his wire-rimmed glasses and wept.
If the judge accepts prosecutors' recommendation of two consecutive life prison terms when he sentences Browning in December, the teenager probably would serve about 30 years before he is eligible for a parole hearing and would need the approval of the governor before being released.
A court-imposed gag order prevents attorneys in the case from discussing it, and many friends and relatives of the Browning family declined yesterday to comment on the guilty pleas. But those who agreed to be interviewed said the hearing marked a sad resolution to a case that continues to trouble children and parents alike.
"I just think it's heartbreaking," said Kelley Haynes, who lived across the street from the Brownings and works as an aide at the middle school that Nick Browning's brothers attended. "It's just amazing to see an entire family gone like that. ... It's affected so many kids. The teachers and adults and everyone - they're all just devastated. Now Nick is left to deal with what he has left."
Browning, who was a sophomore at Dulaney High School, was charged with four counts of first-degree murder and four handgun offenses in the deaths of his parents and brothers. John W. Browning, 45, was an attorney. His wife, Tamara Browning, 44, was a stay-at-home mother and a former PTA president. Their younger boys, 14-year-old Gregory and 11-year-old Benjamin, attended Cockeysville Middle School.
Nicholas Browning admitted walking home from a friend's house - about three miles - in the early-morning hours of Feb. 2 and fatally shooting each member of his family, one by one as they slept, before returning to the friend's house to play Xbox.
He was in court yesterday for a hearing at which lawyers in the case were to argue whether a digital recording of Browning's interview with police - and confession - could be played at trial. The case was scheduled to be tried in December.
Lawyers and legal experts said that the timing of Browning's guilty plea was not surprising and that the likely motive was avoiding a sentence with no hope of release.
"It may well have been that the state said to the other side, 'If we've got to do all that work and go through the suppression hearing, if you lose this suppression hearing - and you're going to lose - we're withdrawing our [plea] offer,'" said Byron L. Warnken, an attorney and law professor at the University of Baltimore Law School.
He noted that prosecutors did not concede much in the plea, reducing the sentence they are seeking from four counts of life without parole to two consecutive life terms and two concurrent life terms.
"My guess is the state's case was so incredibly strong that they had to give up very, very little," Warnken added.
Nevertheless, attorneys said, a paroleable sentence remains a more appealing option for defendants - despite the fact that no convicted killer serving life has been released on parole in Maryland since 1994, according to state officials.
"Having a sentence that admits the possibility of parole - even if it's far into the future - is preferable to one in which your only possibility of getting out is feet-first," said Andrew D. Levy, a trial lawyer who also teaches criminal law at the University of Maryland Law School. "It may be that the practical effect is the same. But this was a young man who was choosing among several unpalatable alternatives."
Because he is younger than 18, Browning was not eligible for the death penalty. Although his lawyers presented evidence that the teenager suffered from a dissociative disorder and that he might have been the victim of abuse, a court-imposed deadline for filing Maryland's equivalent of an insanity plea passed without action by defense attorneys.
Yesterday's guilty pleas followed hours of back-and-forth discussions between Browning and his attorneys and between the lawyers and the teenager's relatives. Just before noon, sheriff's deputies led Browning into the courtroom for the plea hearing.
Wearing a blue polo shirt and khakis, the teenager stood between his lawyers with his ankles shackled and his hands clasped behind his back. He politely answered the judge's questions about whether he understood the rights he gave up by pleading guilty and whether he had been threatened or promised anything to get him to do so.
"Beyond the plea agreement? No sir," Browning responded.