The former Gunpowder Falls State Park manager treated the state’s largest park like his “sexual playground,” the prosecution argued Thursday as the rape trial began for Michael Browning in Baltimore County Circuit Court.
The trial started after two days of jury selection, which yielded a jury of 10 women and two men. Browning, 72, faces 27 counts related to alleged attacks on two young women who worked and lived on park property, including second-degree rape and second-degree assault.
Baltimore County Police arrested Browning in September and charged him with sexually assaulting a former park employee. An indictment by a Baltimore County grand jury in October accused him of raping a second woman, also an an employee living in a park-owned home at the time.
Assistant State’s Attorney Brian Botts emphasized the power and authority Browning had over the two women as the man who controlled their employment and their housing at the beginning of their careers.
“Michael Browning was a boss, Michael Browning was a mentor, Michael Browning was a landlord and Michael Browning was law enforcement,” Botts said in his opening statement. “He’s the captain, and where the buck stops.”
In an opening statement that lasted over an hour, Gary Bernstein, Browning’s attorney, told jurors that the first woman who reported her rape to the police was a “manipulative, conniving user and liar,” and described the second woman as “pathetic” and “a follower.” He also said that the two women had “seduced” an older, married man.
The Baltimore Sun does not name victims of sexual assault.
Bernstein read jurors dozens of text messages from both women, who were at different points in sexual relationships with both each other and Browning. Bernstein claimed the first woman deleted thousands of texts from her phone and accused her of deliberately destroying evidence.
The women never directly confronted Browning for the alleged rapes before a phone call recorded by police, Bernstein said, in which Browning apologized to one victim. He questioned why the women could not identify specific dates and times when the rapes occurred and said both had reasons to wish Browning ill.
Botts told jurors to remember that under Maryland law, an individual can withdraw consent to sex at any time, transforming the interaction “from a relationship to a crime.” He ackowledged that the two women were involved with one another in a sometimes “tumultuous” relationship, with Browning at times observing the two having sex.
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“Consent has to be an agreement, not as Mr. Browning would have it, submission,” he said.
Botts said Browning did not take no for an answer when it came to sex acts and has more to gain by lying than the two women accusing him of rape.
Botts said the first woman to come forward was “uniquely situated,” as a sheltered girl who first met and became close with Browning and his wife when she was 11. Browning maintained a relationship with her throughout her teens and helped her get a job at Gunpowder Falls when she was in her 20s, including free housing, Botts said.
The first victim began her testimony Thursday morning, and the second victim also is set to testify. In court filings, attorneys for both sides estimated the trial could take between five and seven days, ending sometime next week.
The woman described spending evenings at the Brownings’ home throughout her teens as a member of a 4-H club and riding a horse that the couple bought for her. She said Browning, who she became involved with sexually when she was in her early 20s after he helped her get a job at the park, was the first adult who talked to her openly about sex.
Browning was suspended and his police powers revoked Sept. 29 after 45 years with the park service, which is under the state’s Department of Natural Resources. His last day with the agency was Nov. 30, a spokesperson said.
After Browning’s arrest and calls by state lawmakers for a broader investigation of the park’s culture, the Department of Natural Resources saw a series of personnel changes, including the departure of park service superintendent Nina Settina, regional manager Steve McCoy and Gunpowder Falls assistant manager Dean Hughes.