Saying drug use, a chaotic upbringing and a severe beating left a convicted murderer mentally impaired, an Anne Arundel County judge yesterday spared him the death penalty and sentenced the Glen Burnie man to two terms of life without parole for killing his landlady and her daughter-in-law.
Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Pamela L. North said "overwhelming evidence from expert after expert" led her to conclude that Kenneth Ernest Abend, 42, either was unable to control himself or did not fully appreciate what he was doing when he killed Laverne M. Browning, 70, and Tamie C. Browning, 36, nearly three years ago.
But Abend's longtime PCP dependence and violence made him far too dangerous for anything but life in prison without parole, North told the packed Annapolis courtroom.
Abend also received a life term for a sex offense against the younger woman and 20 years for a handgun violation. All sentences will run consecutively.
Dressed in a light-blue button-down shirt and gray slacks, Abend did not show emotion as he was sentenced, though his lawyers afterward said he was "accepting" of the sentence.
Relatives of the victims said they were satisfied that Abend will be imprisoned for the rest of his life.
"The death penalty would have been too easy," said Anneliese Colburn, Tamie Browning's mother.
"I feel that he should suffer in jail for the rest of his life, for the rest of his days," said Debralee Browning, daughter of Laverne Browning.
Randy Browning, who lost his wife and mother in the crime, said in a written statement: "I would not get any satisfaction out [of] watching Abend die." He asked not for pity for himself and his daughter, who was 6 when her mother was slain, but that people "pray for us for peace, joy and happiness."
Harry J. Trainor, who led the defense team, described Abend as "somber and accepting" of the court's sentence but suffering long-term depression. He said an appeal is in the works.
Two of Abend's relatives watched the sentencing, but neither would comment afterward.
The victims' families said they are haunted by not knowing what happened Jan. 12, 2002, in the basement apartment that tavern owner Laverne Browning rented to Abend.
The women's bodies were found in the trunk of Tamie Browning's car, along with a bloody handprint matching Abend. The gun used to shoot both women was found in Laverne Browning's car, as was Abend's DNA. He also told an acquaintance that he did something bad to his landlady, according to police.
Abend told defense experts he had no idea what happened at the time of the killings. The defense contended that between PCP use, head injuries and post-traumatic stress from a severe beating, Abend had a psychotic break.
At the sentencing, North said she did not find the prosecution's expert witness as qualified as defense experts.
She noted Abend's history of drug use and injuries among the six reasons for sparing his life, along with a lack of a motive for the killing.
"As horrible as these crimes are, he has the capacity to do good in the jail," North said.
Testimony this month indicated Abend helped other inmates at the Anne Arundel County Detention Center and was active in a nondenominational Christian prayer group. A similar group at the Maryland House of Correction Annex in Jessup is prepared to welcome him, according to the defense.
Sandra Colburn, Tamie Browning's sister, said she did not believe the defense's contention of Abend's spirituality.
"He has no choice but to reach for God," she said.
Assistant State's Attorney Frank J. Ragione said he offered appropriate evidence to justify a death penalty - that Abend committed two murders together, and that one included a sex crime. He contended that Abend chose to use PCP heavily.
The case was marked by twists.
Rather than go to trial, Abend was convicted on a prosecution statement that he did not challenge. He chose to be sentenced by a judge, not jury.
This month, North said she would not hear impact statements from the victims' family until after she decided between death and life, splitting up the sentencing hearing. The family sought to appeal. North, however, changed her mind based on court precedent.
Yesterday, she told the victims' relatives that she was sorry for their losses and for any anguish that the sentencing process might have caused them. She invited the legislature to clarify the law on victim impact statements in death-penalty cases.