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Guilty plea in 4 murders

The Baltimore Sun

At court hearing after court hearing, Nicholas W. Browning has sat stoically as lawyers argued about his bail status, the doctors who would evaluate him and whether he would be tried in adult court or the juvenile system on charges that he killed his family.

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.

The tears followed Browning's decision to plead guilty to four counts of first-degree murder in exchange for prosecutors' recommendation of a sentence of no more than two consecutive life terms in prison. As part of the plea agreement accepted by Baltimore County Circuit Judge Thomas J. Bollinger Sr., prosecutors agreed to withdraw the notice of their intention to seek four sentences of life without the possibility of parole.

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.

He began to cry as the prosecutor read the two-page statement of facts to which both sides had agreed as part of the plea negotiations.

Brobst told the judge that Browning's parents dropped him off at a friend's house at 6 p.m. Feb. 1 with plans to pick him up the next morning for a "family cleaning day" at his home. But Browning - a week shy of his 16th birthday - told his friends that he intended to return home that night to take his family's Ford Expedition so they could joy ride. He asked his brother Greg to leave the basement door unlocked so he could take the keys to the SUV, the prosecutor said.

After walking home, Browning went to the basement, where his father had been cleaning a 9 mm pistol. He pulled on his father's gloves, picked up the gun and a spare magazine, and walked upstairs.

There, in the family room, Browning found his father asleep on the couch. "The defendant raised the pistol and shot his father in the head, killing him," Brobst said.

Expecting his family to be awakened by the gunfire, the teenager then waited beside his father for the others to come downstairs, she said. When they did not, he went to the second-floor bedrooms.

He shot his mother twice while she lay in her bed before continuing down the hall to the bedroom where his brothers slept. There, he shot Greg once in the head, Brobst said.

"Benjamin began to stir and the defendant raised the pistol yet again," the prosecutor told the judge. "He shot Benjamin twice in the face. One of the bullets grazed Benjamin's left index finger as he put his hand over his face prior to being shot. ... The defendant turned and walked away from the room and the wallpaper border that was now splattered with the blood of his brothers."

In the hours that followed the killings, Browning played video games and went to the mall with his friends. He repeatedly called home, his family's cell phones and their vacation home on Deep Creek Lake, telling his parents and brothers in each message that he loved them and would see them soon, Brobst said.

Defense attorney William C. Brennan Jr. told the judge that he will ask him to recommend Browning for the Patuxent Institution, a maximum-security facility in Jessup that offers a program for youthful offenders that features more education and treatment options than the state's prisons.

Randall Nero, a psychologist and Patuxent's director, said the program accepts inmates under the age of 21 who suffer from "some intellectual or emotional imbalance" and likely would benefit from treatment. The facility has its own parole board, which requires seven of the nine members to agree before an inmate can be released.

Although Patuxent is not obligated by state law - the way the Maryland Parole Commission is - to require inmates convicted of violent crimes to serve half their sentences before they get a parole hearing, Nero said it is the policy of the institution's review board to do the same. In addition, the governor still must approve the release of inmates serving life sentences at Patuxent, he said.

Those who knew the Browning family expressed conflicting feelings on the case and Nicholas Browning's likely sentence.

"It's a huge tragedy, but I'm not going to say I want the kid to be in jail for the rest of his life," said Brian Snyder, owner of a Towson deli and a client of John Browning's. "There's other people who are out who maybe need to be in jail longer than he will. It's a lose-lose for everyone."

Haynes, who lived across the street from the Brownings, said it has taken the children at Cockeysville Middle a long time to recover.

"It's really tough for them. A lot of kids were very confused and unsure," she said. "It's easier to think, 'Oh, a stranger has done that.' But this was someone the kids knew; it was somebody's brother. It's difficult for them and left them wondering, 'Am I safe? Is someone in my family going to do that?' "

The Rev. Bill Brown, who for seven years led the church that the Browning family attended before he took a position this summer with another congregation, said he hopes the resolution of the case will bring a measure of comfort to those who knew them.

"My hope and prayer is just that there would be healing for the family and for the community," he said.

Sun reporter Nick Madigan contributed to this article.


Feb. 2: John W. Browning, 45, his wife, Tamara Browning, 44, and their two youngest sons, Gregory, 14, and Benjamin, 11, are fatally shot in their sleep in their Cockeysville home.

Feb. 3: Their eldest son, Nicholas W. Browning, 15, is arrested and charged with four counts of first-degree murder after questioning by Baltimore County police, who say he admitted the shootings.

Feb. 9: More than 1,000 people attend a funeral service for the Brownings; Nicholas Browning turns 16 years old.

March 19-20: Judge Thomas J. Bollinger Sr. orders the county's juvenile justice department to evaluate whether Browning should be tried in the juvenile system or remain in adult court. The judge also orders a psychiatric evaluation for him.

July 29: Bollinger denies a defense request to transfer the case to juvenile court. A forensic psychiatrist testifying for the defense says Browning was in a "trance-like state" when his family members were shot.

Aug. 29: The deadline passes for defense attorneys to file a motion to argue that Browning is guilty but not criminally responsible for the killings - Maryland's equivalent of an insanity plea.

Oct. 27: At a hearing scheduled to consider pretrial motions, Browning pleads guilty to four counts of first-degree murder in exchange for no more than two consecutive life prison terms, making him eligible for parole.

Dec. 2: Browning is to be sentenced.

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