Driven by demons perhaps even he did not understand, 15-year-old Nicholas W. Browning approached his sleeping father a year ago and shot him in the head. One by one, he did the same to his mother and two brothers, the youngest of whom raised a hand in a futile attempt at warding off the bullet that killed him.
Today, in a Towson courtroom, Browning, now 16, will be sentenced for his acts, which stunned his Cockeysville community and his classmates at Dulaney High School, where he had played lacrosse and displayed a keen intelligence.
At today's sentencing, his lawyers will argue that the "terrible events" of the early hours of Feb. 2, 2008, were the "result of years of abuse suffered by Nicholas Browning" at the hands of his alcoholic father, whom the children referred to as Hitler, according to a memorandum filed yesterday in Baltimore County Circuit Court by the defense.
The killings occurred because the boy "had been battered and beaten to the point where his immature juvenile mind could conceive of no other alternative to relieve the pain than to eliminate it," the sentencing document says.
In October, after pleading guilty in court to four counts of first-degree murder, Browning removed his glasses and wept.
Defense attorneys will recommend to Judge Thomas J. Bollinger Sr. that he suspend all but 25 years of a life sentence for Browning, and plan to ask that he be sent to the Patuxent Institution, a maximum-security facility in Jessup that is outside the Division of Correction system and offers youthful offenders more education and treatment options than the state's prisons.
"Such a referral is in everyone's best interests," the defense's sentencing document says. It quotes "an extensive psychosocial evaluation" as concluding that Browning "needs to be both held accountable and work through his mental health issues."
"Nicholas will first need to work through his own victimization/trauma issues before he can begin the difficult internal work as a perpetrator," the document continues, citing the evaluation. "Nicholas needs healthy, non-abusive relationships, desire/hope, and a strong therapeutic component if he is to learn from his tragic actions."
If he were not placed in Patuxent, the lawyers argue, "it is not hard to imagine the challenges and difficulties Nick is likely to face in a D.O.C. institution from older, bigger, more physically mature and far more dangerous men."
But State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger disagrees. "We don't think Patuxent is the right place," he said yesterday by phone. "We believe that the D.O.C. and punishment is the right place. I think he's a dangerous individual."
Shellenberger said the eligibility rules for release from Patuxent are less stringent than in D.O.C. institutions, "and we don't think it's appropriate in this case."
In addition, Shellenberger disputed the defense's suggestion that the two life sentences to which Browning agreed in a plea deal be served concurrently. "There nothing to change our opinion that two life sentences, served consecutively, is the appropriate sentence," he said. "We felt it was important that he be held accountable for every one of the crimes he committed. His remaining family approached us and asked that some hope be offered to him and we tried to balance the wishes of the family versus my overwhelming interest in public safety."
Shellenberger did not comment yesterday on the defense's contention that the teen was abused, but prosecutors expressed concern at a hearing in July that most of the allegations came from the defendant himself. Prosecutor Leo Ryan Jr. said the fact that the state declined to refute the allegations at the hearing should not be taken as a sign that they were true.
S. Ann Brobst, who is prosecuting the case, said that at today's hearing she plans to introduce two letters written by family members - a brother and sister of the boy's father - that will describe "how their loss affected them." Brobst also plans to call a "somewhat reluctant" witness, who is not a relative and whom she would not name, to talk about the effect of the deaths of John and Tamara Browning and their sons Gregory, 14, and Benjamin, 11.
"Some people are reluctant to discuss impact because they don't want to appear punitive toward the defendant," Brobst said. "But the sentencing court should still have information about the loss."
One of the teen's lawyers, Joshua R. Treem, said in an interview that the family members who "have been the closest to Nick have uniformly and consistently, since the day of these terrible events, been very supportive of him and continue to be.
"They've written letters which say, 'We want to get help for Nick.' They essentially forgive him."