A Howard County judge yesterday sentenced 19-year-old Ryan Furlough to life in prison in the poisoning death of his best friend, but left open the possibility of parole.
Furlough, of Ellicott City, was convicted in May of first-degree murder for slipping cyanide into the Vanilla Coke of Benjamin Vassiliev, 17, who attended Centennial High School with Furlough.
The conviction carries a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole. But Circuit Court Judge Raymond J. Kane said he rejected that sentence because of Furlough's age and his lack of a prior criminal record. Still, Kane said that he was "appalled" by what he called a "meticulously planned murder."
Furlough had invited Vassiliev to his home in the afternoon of Jan. 3, 2003. The teenagers had been playing video games and watching a movie in Furlough's basement when he spiked Vassiliev's soft drink and offered it to him, Furlough told detectives. Shortly afterward, Vassiliev began having seizures and was taken to the hospital. He fell into a coma and died five days later.
In his first public statement, Furlough said during the sentencing hearing yesterday, "I am truly sorry for the act I committed." He said he thinks about Vassiliev every day.
"Ben was my best friend and now my greatest nightmare," he said. He added: "I'm sure [members of the Vassiliev family] despise me for what happened. I don't blame them."
Furlough sat quietly with his head bowed for most of the nearly four-hour hearing. He wore a blue shirt and dark pants, and his hair was neatly combed to the side. His voice wavered when he stood up to deliver his statement.
"I wish I could undo everything and bring him back, but I can't," he said.
He then turned toward the courtroom and faced Vassiliev's family and apologized again "for any pain I have caused." He also spoke about his new-found Christian faith and desire to receive his GED and take college courses.
Defense attorneys had sought to have Furlough serve at least part of his sentence at Patuxent Institution, a therapeutic correctional facility in Jessup. During the trial, they had argued that Furlough's use of the antidepressant Effexor had clouded his thinking and that he was emotionally distraught and close to suicide at the time of the murder.
Kane rejected that request, siding with prosecutors, who said the killing was "calculated and deliberated in a diabolical manner." Prosecutors said that Furlough had planned Vassiliev's murder for months and that he felt slighted by his friend's failure to give him presents on his birthday and Christmas and threatened by Vassiliev's relationship with his girlfriend.
After the sentencing, Furlough's mother, Susan, told reporters that she was disappointed by the judge's decision and that her son's actions were the side effects of his medication. She said that the amount of medication has been drastically reduced since he was jailed and that Furlough is becoming himself again.
"My son could really and truly be a taxpayer," she said. "He's already turned half-around. . . . If that's not a sign that he doesn't deserve what he got, I don't know what is."
Susan Furlough, a registered nurse, said that in a telephone conversation Monday night, her son told her that he loved her and apologized for his actions. She said he asked her to help stop teenagers from taking drugs such as Effexor. An expert witness called by defense attorneys said the sometimes violent side effects of the drug are more common in adolescents than in adults.
But Vassiliev's family was not swayed by Furlough's professions of remorse. During an emotional statement at yesterday's hearing, Vassiliev's father, Walter, looked directly at Furlough and called him a "murderer."
Walter Vassiliev said he respected Kane's decision but was disappointed that the option for parole was left open, calling it "misplaced sympathy on a coldblooded killer who I believe deserves none."
Furlough must serve at least 15 years of the life sentence, with the possibility of a reduction for good behavior, according to Mary Murphy, an assistant state's attorney.
The Vassilievs said they were worried that if Furlough came up for parole, Erik Vassiliev, Benjamin's 15-year-old brother, would have to bear the legal burden of fighting it.
"This is not over," Erik said. "This will never end for me now. Ever."