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Browning faces a life in prison

The Baltimore Sun

When Nicholas W. Browning is sentenced in December for the fatal shootings of his parents and two younger brothers, the 16-year-old Cockeysville honors student with no prior criminal record will likely join a state prison population that includes hundreds of inmates serving time for crimes they committed as teenagers.

He'll be fingerprinted, photographed and, in the language of the prison system, "classified."

He could serve out his sentence - up to two consecutive life terms, according to the terms of the plea agreement reached Monday - among other maximum-security inmates convicted of murder, rape and other serious crimes, state corrections officials say. Or, if he is deemed in need of protection, he might spend as many as 23 hours a day in his cell.

"In terms of whether he'll be in the general population or segregated, that depends on his characteristics, his age, how he carries himself," said Kendall Gifford, the director of case management with Maryland's Division of Correction. "Some people make the charge that we don't want to take a young guy and put him in with the lions. But a lot of the young guys are the lions."

Browning, however, appears to be far different from the typical juvenile inmate.

A sophomore at Dulaney High School and a Boy Scout, he played lacrosse and enjoyed regular ski trips in Western Maryland at his family's vacation home on Deep Creek Lake. He took high-level classes at Dulaney and has an IQ that a psychiatrist who evaluated him testified places him in the superior or very superior range of intelligence.

And having pleaded guilty this week to four counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of his parents and brothers, he faces a sentence that will likely leave him a distant chance of ever being released from prison. No inmate serving a life sentence has been paroled in Maryland since 1994, and all such cases require the approval of the governor.

"Most kids prosecuted as adults are not kids who have killed their families. Most are not kids who have killed at all," said Bart Lubow, the director of programs for high-risk youth at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. "The difference in Nick's case, of course, is that his case is this horribly egregious, one-of-a-kind thing."

Of the current prison population of 23,285 inmates, 62 are younger than 18, according to statistics from the state's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

As part of Browning's plea agreement, Baltimore County prosecutors withdrew the notice of their intent to seek four sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Instead, they'll recommend to the judge that Browning be sentenced to two consecutive life terms and two concurrent life terms - a sentence that could leave the teenager eligible for a parole hearing after 30 years behind bars.

Browning's lawyers said in court that they will ask the judge to recommend their client for the Patuxent Institution, a maximum-security facility in Jessup that offers a program for youthful offenders; it features more education and treatment options than the state's prisons.

But even if Baltimore County Circuit Judge Thomas J. Bollinger Sr. agrees, it could be years before Browning is even transferred to Patuxent for the assessments that would determine whether he would be accepted into one of the program's 160 spots.

"If the judge makes a recommendation for him for the youthful offender program, we'll definitely evaluate him - but not as quickly as someone who has a much shorter sentence," said Randall Nero, a psychologist and the director of Patuxent.

The program accepts prisoners who are under the age of 21 at the time of their sentencing who suffer from an intellectual or emotional imbalance and would benefit from treatment. But the goal is to reserve the program for those inmates who will finish sentences at Patuxent.

"Our preference would not be to give them treatment and then send them back to the DOC to sit," Nero added, referring to the Division of Correction, which runs Maryland's prisons.

Ronald A. Baradel, a lawyer who represented a 17-year-old Anne Arundel County boy convicted of second-degree murder for killing his adoptive parents in 1984, said prison life was a difficult adjustment for his client, even though he served most of his 12-year sentence at the Patuxent Institution.

"You have the usual problems that you do in prison, especially if you're not a street-hardened guy," Baradel said. "People would try to hit on him. He told me about one time he confronted a guy who tried to hit on him. He said, 'You know what I'm in for? I killed my parents. If that's what I did to people I loved, just imagine what I could do to somebody who pissed me off.' "

Baradel added, "I don't think he had much trouble after that."

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