Tape raises questions

The Baltimore Sun

He told police that he stood over his father with a gun for 20 to 25 minutes before shooting him in the head. He told them that after also shooting his mother and brothers, he tried to make the house look like it had been hit by burglars. And he told the detectives investigating the fatal shootings in his upscale Cockeysville neighborhood that he killed his two younger brothers because he thought it was the only way he could get away with killing his parents.

These statements from Nicholas W. Browning - highlighted in court testimony during a July hearing at which a judge ruled the 16-year-old would be tried for murder in adult court rather than in the juvenile system - will be the focus of a pre-trial hearing today in Baltimore County Circuit Court. Defense attorneys are expected to argue that prosecutors should not be allowed to play a digital video recording of Browning's interview with police at the trial.

Prosecutors allege that Browning, who was a sophomore at Dulaney High School, killed his parents, John and Tamara Browning - a lawyer and a former PTA president, respectively - and his brothers, Gregory, 14, and Benjamin, 11, in the early-morning hours of Feb. 2. The deaths occurred a week before Nicholas Browning's 16th birthday.

He is accused of walking home about three miles from a friend's house in the middle of the night and fatally shooting each member of his family one by one while they slept, before returning to the friend's house to play Xbox.

A forensic psychiatrist who examined Browning testified for the defense at a hearing in July that the teenager was in a "trance-like state" when his family was killed and that he did not recall pulling the trigger but remembered hearing the fatal shots. Dr. Neil H. Blumberg also testified that the killings followed an escalation in verbal and physical abuse by Browning's parents that the defendant told him began after he entered middle school.

Prosecutors have filed notice of their intention to seek four sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole if Browning is convicted. He is not eligible for the death penalty because he is under 18.

A court-imposed gag order prevents attorneys in the case from discussing it. But legal experts - and comments made in the days after Browning's arrest by the teenager's first attorney - suggest the defense team might argue that his statements to homicide detectives were involuntary because of his age and the duration of the interrogation.

"I'm just concerned that you have a ... traumatized 15-year-old boy, who gave a confession in the wee hours of Sunday morning, in a police station, after denying these charges for several hours, without an adult, without an attorney," Steven D. Silverman, who initially represented Browning, told reporters after the teenager's first court appearance Feb. 4.

A defense team led by attorneys Joshua R. Treem and William C. Brennan - hired by Browning's legal guardians, an aunt and uncle in Virginia - has taken over the case. Treem, a former federal prosecutor, represented Lee Boyd Malvo, half of the sniper team that terrorized the Washington region in 2002. Brennan has defended more than 20 death penalty cases.

Abraham Dash, a professor at the University of Maryland Law School, said the defense team will likely argue that Browning's youth prevented him from understanding the rights he waived to remain silent and to speak to a lawyer and that his age, combined with the hours he spent in police custody before confessing to the shootings, should render his statements unconstitutionally involuntary.

"I suspect they'll argue that ... even though he did not ask for a lawyer, he was so young that he didn't quite understand what it meant that they could have a lawyer appointed for him," he said.

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