Moments before he was sentenced to four life terms for killing his parents and two younger brothers, 16-year-old Nicholas W. Browning turned to his remaining relatives in a Towson courtroom yesterday and, tears streaming down his face, asked for their forgiveness.
Apparently too overcome to read the handwritten statement he had composed, he handed it to one of his lawyers. "I cannot make the pain go away," recited the attorney, Joshua R. Treem. "I never considered what effect my actions would have. I thought only of myself."
Browning admitted in a videotaped confession - played in court for the first time yesterday - that he had shot his parents, John and Tamara Browning, and his brothers, Gregory, 14, and Benjamin, 11, as they slept on Feb. 2, 2008, in their Cockeysville home.
Asked by a detective why he had shot them all in the head, Browning answered, "I just figured it would be quicker. It would just be instant."
The motive he provided was years of physical abuse and insults he said he had suffered at the hands of his father, a Towson attorney whose 9 mm pistol Nicholas Browning used.
But in pronouncing sentence, Baltimore County Circuit Judge Thomas J. Bollinger Sr. said he paid no heed to any allegation of abuse as a mitigating factor in the killings.
Bollinger, hewing closely to the recommendation of prosecutors, sentenced the former Dulaney High School student to two consecutive life terms and two concurrent life terms.
He could be eligible for parole in 30 years. Such releases for inmates serving life sentences require the governor's consent, however, and none have been granted since 1994.
Defense attorneys had asked the judge to impose a life sentence with all but 25 years suspended.
The judge remanded Browning to the custody of the Division of Correction but ordered that, if possible, he be admitted to the maximum-security Patuxent Institution in Jessup, a facility that operates separately from the Division of Correction and provides psychological treatment and educational programs unavailable in the state prisons. Prosecutors had urged that Browning serve his term exclusively in prison.
Bollinger said he was considering only the law in imposing sentence. Whether the crimes were "diabolically evil," he said, "is up to almighty God."
At yesterday's sentencing, prosecutors played a recording of a telephone conversation Wednesday between Browning, who has been held since the killings at the Baltimore County Detention Center, and a friend named Stephanie in which the young man referred to a murderer who escaped Jan. 17 from a Hagerstown prison.
"That's going to be me in a year," Browning told the girl, who was not otherwise identified. They both laughed.
Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, the parent agency for the Division of Correction and Patuxent, said the judge's order means that the staff in Jessup must evaluate Browning for as long as six months before deciding whether to accept him for long-term treatment.
"Patuxent gets a lot of recommendations, but they don't have to accept all of them," Vernarelli said. About 150 inmates - out of a population of 860, all but 110 of them male - are enrolled in the facility's Youthful Offender Program. If he is accepted there but fails to properly complete the treatment program, Browning would be sent to prison to serve out the remainder of his sentence.
As he entered the packed courtroom yesterday morning, in shackles and escorted by two sheriff's deputies, Browning smiled at his relatives in the front row. Later, his paternal grandmother, Margaret Browning, who is suffering from a severe bronchial ailment, addressed the court in a hoarse whisper, her remarks repeated audibly by another relative.
"I know in my heart, from my heart, that my son would want help for his son," she said. "That's all I'm asking, that he get help."
Treem, the defense attorney, said no one could excuse what Browning did but asserted that the boy had lived for years in a household filled with "substance-abuse issues" and "marred with domestic violence between the parents" and against the children. The father's anger was fueled by alcohol, Treem said, and directed mostly at his eldest son.
In a very different account, John Browning's former law partner, Keith Truffer, told the judge that the man he had known for 20 years had a "tremendous sense of generosity," with a "pleasant, affable nature," a ready smile and a "charming manner of speech."
Dr. Neil H. Blumberg, a forensic psychiatrist, testified at a hearing in July that the teenager was in a "trance-like state" at the time he shot his father and the others.
That account was discounted yesterday by Leo Ryan Jr., a deputy state's attorney, who told the court that the defendant's actions in the hours after the murders show he was "not a victimized adolescent in a trance-like state, but a predator untroubled by the carnage he had wrought."
The prosecution played the videotape of Browning's confession to a detective, Matthew Walsh, in which the boy described sleeping late at a friend's house after the killings and then going shopping at Towson Town Center.
On the screen, he was shown taking a break from the interview by ordering a double-bacon cheeseburger, fries and a Diet Coke from the detective and then, alone, calmly eating for about eight minutes. The courtroom watched in silence, the only sound the young man's chewing.
Ryan told the court that, rather than viewing Browning as a passive victim of parental abuse, the judge should consider that he had long intended to murder his family, a plan hatched "with cold and methodical detachment."
Browning had hidden a key to his father's gun safe under a mattress, wore gloves to handle the gun and the spare magazine he had brought from the basement and tossed his mother's jewelry about to make the killings seem part of a robbery, Ryan said.
"The defendant was even coldhearted enough to get his brother to facilitate his own murder by calling Greg and asking him to leave the basement door unlocked," Ryan said. "In a case filled with depraved acts, having Greg assist in his own murder may be the most shocking."
Ryan suggested that the reason for the killings was Browning's desire to be the sole heir to the family's money.
After the hearing, a teenage girl, her eyes filled with tears, sat on a bench outside the courtroom, saying nothing. Family members and school friends of Browning declined to comment as they emerged.
On the courthouse steps, prosecutor S. Ann Brobst said the judge had been "extremely just." It was "beyond the pale," she went on, to suggest that there was some valid motivating factor in the killings, especially those of the two boys.
In the videotaped confession, the detective is heard asking Browning why he had killed his little brothers. "I thought if no one was there to say anything that my story would go, because I was the only one," he replied. "I just got scared. It just happened."
Excerpts from the transcript of homicide detective's recorded interview with Nicholas W. Browning on Feb. 2, 2008, the day of the killings:
Browning: "...there's no reason for me to kill my family...yes, they're harsh, but they're not that harsh really....they let me do what I want."
Browning: "I have a very large...inheritance coming to me regardless of if there's insurance money or not....I am set, you know...I can go through my life without that. There's no money reason."
Detective Matthew Walsh: "I know the guilty by the way they act. I'm not even talking about the evidence, I'm just looking at the way you're acting tonight."
Browning: "A jury won't."
LATER IN THE INTERVIEW
Browning: "I probably sat there for a half-hour... just standing over [my father]. And then I went between putting the gun up to his head and pulling it back down and up....I'm not sure if I meant to pull the trigger. ... And I raised it one more time - I don't know if I pulled it - I must have pulled the trigger, but I don't know if it was subconscience [sic] or if I meant to do it or whether the thing went off, and there was this loud ringing. And I just sat there on the couch and waited for it all to come crashing down. ... And then once that happened, I freaked out. ... I shot [my mother]. And then I shot Greg and Ben."
Excerpts from police interview with youth just after crime. PG 4