Two days before he was sentenced to four life terms for killing his parents and younger brothers, an honor student from an upscale Baltimore suburb joked about escaping from prison in a jailhouse phone call to a friend.
Nicholas W. Browning took a different tone at his sentencing hearing Friday, sobbing and telling relatives, “I’m so sorry.”
Baltimore County Circuit Judge Thomas J. Bollinger sentenced Browning to serve two of the life terms consecutively, meaning he could be eligible for parole in 23 years with good behavior.
The contrasting images presented by prosecutors and attorneys — a jovial jailhouse phone call and a tearful courtroom apology — strike at the heart of a question that remained unanswered even after Browning pleaded guilty in October to four counts of murder. Was the former Boy Scout a callous murderer who plotted the killing hoping to collect a hefty inheritance or, as defense attorneys say, an abused teen who acted out in the most tragic way possible?
In court Friday, Browning was too overcome by emotion to read a statement of apology to his relatives, so his attorney read it instead. It said, in part, “I so badly want to take away your pain.”
But prosecutors played a phone call of a conversation Wednesday between Browning and a friend named Stephanie.
“I hate justice,” Browning said. “You need to break in here and break me out.”
He asked if she heard about a convicted killer who recently escaped from a Maryland prison and told her that would be him sometime next year.
“These are hardly the words of someone wracked with guilt and remorse,” said assistant state’s attorney Leo Ryan Jr. “These are the words of a dangerous killer.”
Prosecutors also showed clips from Browning’s videotaped interview with police the day after he killed his parents, John and Tamara, and his brothers, 14-year-old Gregory and 11-year-old Benjamin, then went to a friend’s house to play video games.
The high school sophomore showed little emotion and confidently predicted that a jury would believe his story that burglars were responsible for the killings.
Ryan pegged money as the motive for the slayings, saying abuse would not explain why Browning also killed his brothers.
Browning ultimately confessed in the same interview. Asked why he killed his brothers, he said, “I thought if no one was there to say anything that my story would go, because I was the only one.”
Browning’s relatives — including his grandparents, aunts and uncles — stood behind him. Several wrote letters asking Bollinger to show leniency and backing up claims that Browning was abused by his parents.
“I have no doubt that Nick was mentally and physically abused for most of his life and that Tammy chose to become an enabler during the last few years of her life,” wrote Harold Waggoner, Browning’s maternal grandfather.
In the statement read by his attorney, Browning said, “My home life had become much more toxic to myself than I ever thought possible.”
Browning’s relatives declined comment after the hearing. Prosecutors bristled at the way the defense portrayed Browning’s parents, who were respected in the community.
“They can’t stick up for themselves,” assistant state’s attorney S. Ann Brobst said after the sentencing. “Everyone has been murdered except the one person who stands to gain by making the claims that were made in court today.”
Defense attorneys had asked Bollinger to allow Browning to serve all of his life terms at the same time, meaning he would be eligible for parole earlier. Prosecutors asked for the consecutive life sentences, ensuring it will be at least 23 years before Browning can have his first parole hearing.
Even then, parole for an offender serving a life sentence in Maryland must be approved by the governor, and that hasn’t happened since 1994.
Bollinger recommend that Browning be committed to the Patuxent Institution, a maximum-security psychiatric facility with a program for youthful offenders. He suggested that he was not entirely swayed by any of the explanations of Browning’s motive.
“The question of whether his actions were just diabolically evil,” Bollinger said, “is up to almighty God.”