Teen 'trance-like,' doctor testifies

Thank you for supporting our journalism. This article is available exclusively for our subscribers, who help fund our work at The Baltimore Sun.

The Browning family is shown at Deep Creek Lake, where they had a vacation home, around June 2006. Nicholas (top right) is accused of killing his parents, Tamara and John, and his two brothers, Benjamin (bottom left) and Gregory.
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.

The next day, "he acted and felt like nothing had happened. It was a bad dream," Blumberg told the judge. "He knew on one hand that his family was dead. But on the other hand, he ... acted like nothing had happened."

The bodies were discovered just before 5 p.m. when a friend's parent drove the defendant and other teenagers over to the Browning house. After entering the house, one of the friends ran back outside, yelling that there was blood coming from John Browning's nose. Nick Browning called 911.

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

Blumberg told the judge that Browning discussed the killings "like he was talking about taking out the trash" and never became emotional about the case before his fourth visit with the boy.

"It was not until the end of March that it appeared to sink in - the enormity of what happened, of what he had done," the psychiatrist said. "That his family was dead. That he was responsible."

Blumberg diagnosed Browning with a dissociative disorder and alcohol abuse. He said there are treatment programs in the juvenile system to address those problems.

A court-appointed psychiatrist and psychologist who examined Browning did not diagnose him with any mental disorders.

Ryan, one of the prosecutors, argued to the judge that neither of them saw any dissociative symptoms in the defendant until late June. The prosecutor attributed those developments to a conversation that Browning had during his evaluation with Dr. Stephen W. Siebert. He told the court-appointed psychiatrist that his lawyers were "digging up dirt" on his father to paint him as a functioning alcoholic who was abusive, Ryan said.

Asked what that had to do with the killings of his mother and his younger brothers, Browning responded, "We're still working on that," the prosecutor said.

Blumberg's testimony also revealed new allegations that the Browning parents, particularly John W. Browning, verbally and physically abused at least two of their three sons.

He told the judge that John Browning once grabbed his eldest son by the helmet and threw him against a fence after the boy was ejected from a lacrosse game.

He testified that a friend of Greg Browning's once saw the father throw Greg - the middle son - across their kitchen when the father thought the boy wasn't paying enough attention to his friend.

And he testified that the father once chased Nick Browning around the house, knocked him to the ground and kicked him in the stomach after a dispute between Nick and one of his younger brothers.

Prosecutors expressed concern in court that most of the evidence of the alleged abuse came from the defendant himself.

"There have been a lot of allegations made about circumstances that may have existed in the Browning household," Ryan told the judge in his closing argument. Adding that no one should interpret prosecutors' choice to not refute that evidence at yesterday's hearing as a sign that it's all true, he added, "This simply isn't the place for it."

The case is scheduled to go to trial in December.