TOWSON, Md. – An honor student and former Boy Scout pleaded guilty Monday to fatally shooting his sleeping family, then going back to a friend's house to play video games.
Nicholas Browning, 16, of Cockeysville pleaded guilty to four counts of first-degree murder in the February slayings of John W. Browning, 45; Tamara, 44; Gregory, 14, and Benjamin, 11. In exchange for his plea, he will serve at least two decades in prison but will not serve life without parole.
The killings stunned the upscale Baltimore suburb where the family lived. The family was active in a local church and widely respected in the community, and nearly 1,300 people attended a funeral service for them.
Though authorities painted the most complete picture yet in court Monday of how the chilling crime happened, Browning's motive remains a mystery. The teen cried as prosecutors described the killings, accepting a tissue from a sheriff's deputy, but said little else.
According to a statement of the crime read in court, Browning asked his brother, Gregory, to leave the basement door unlocked, then walked home from a friend's house after midnight on Saturday, Feb. 2. In the basement, he put on a pair of gloves and picked up a handgun belonging to his father and a spare magazine.
His father was asleep on a sofa on the first floor. Nicholas shot him in the head, then waited for the rest of his family to come downstairs.
When they failed to stir, he went to his mother's bedroom and shot her twice as she slept, prosecutors said. Then he moved on to his brothers' bedroom. He shot Gregory once in the head. At that point, Benjamin began to stir. Benjamin lifted his hand to shield himself, and Browning shot his youngest brother twice in the face. One bullet grazed the boy's left index finger.
After the slayings, Browning returned to his friend's house, played video games and pretended nothing had happened. The following day, Browning and his friends went to a shopping mall, and he placed several calls to his family, leaving them messages to say he loved them and would see them soon. A friend's father drove him home, and Browning emerged from the house to say something was wrong with his father. The friend's father saw John Browning's body and called police.
Browning later confessed to the slayings and told police where they could find the murder weapon.
Other than noting that the teen had been arguing with his father, police and prosecutors have not detailed a motive. Dr. Neil H. Blumberg, a forensic psychiatrist for the defense, testified at an earlier hearing that Browning was physically and verbally abused by his parents and thought he could do nothing to please them. However, state psychiatrists have said they do not believe he was mentally ill.
Blumberg said Browning had disruptions in consciousness, memory and perception on the night of the killings and that Browning indicated he was in "a trancelike state." The psychiatrist also testified that relatives and friends told him they had seen Nicholas' parents abuse him. He said the family had a history of alcoholism and that John, Tamara and Nicholas abused alcohol.
Browning was a week shy of his 16th birthday at the time of the slayings, too young under state law to face the death penalty. When he is sentenced Dec. 2, he faces two consecutive life terms. Under state parole guidelines, he could become eligible for parole in 23 years if he is a model inmate — though state officials say murderers are rarely granted parole at their first hearing.
Defense lawyers asked that Browning serve his sentence at Patuxent Institution in Jessup, a facility that provides psychiatric treatment.
Browning's grandmother, Margaret Browning, was in the courtroom Monday morning as attorneys hammered out the deal but was not present when her grandson entered the plea. Other relatives did not speak to reporters as they left court. Attorneys also did not comment, and the judge kept a gag order in the case intact until sentencing.