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Defendant gets 30 years in Zoloft trial

A South Carolina jury found 15-year-old Christopher Pittman guilty of murdering his grandparents, and sentenced him to 30 years in prison, rejecting defense claims that the antidepressant Zoloft drove him to commit the crime.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A 15-year-old boy who claimed the antidepressant Zoloft drove him to kill his grandparents and burn their house down was found guilty of murder Tuesday and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

The jury took six hours to reject Christopher Pittman’s claim that he was “involuntarily intoxicated” by the drug and could not be held responsible for the crime.

The trial was the first case in the United States in which it was argued that the antidepressant led a youngster to kill, Pittman’s lawyer said. It came at a time of heightened government attention to the use of antidepressants by children and growing evidence that the drugs can lead to suicidal impulses.

Pittman was 12 in 2001 when he killed his grandparents, Joe Pittman, 66, and Joy Pittman, 62, with a pump-action shotgun as they slept in their rural home, then torched their house and drove off in their car. He was charged as an adult.

Pittman hung his head as the verdict was read. “I know it’s in the hands of God. Whatever he decides on, that’s what it’s going to be,” he said quietly, just before Judge Danny Pieper handed down the minimum sentence. The boy could have gotten life in prison.

Defense says killings 'chemically induced'
About a month before the slayings, Pittman was hospitalized after threatening to kill himself. He was prescribed the antidepressant Paxil and was later put on Zoloft.

A psychiatrist testified for the defense that the Zoloft was to blame for the killings, and a former Food and Drug Administration official testified that the crime was an angry, rash, manic act “that was chemically induced.”

Pittman’s lawyers urged the jury to send a message to the nation by blaming Zoloft. They said the negative effects of Zoloft are more pronounced in youngsters, and the drug affected Pittman so he did not know right from wrong.

“We do not convict children for murder when they have been ambushed by chemicals that destroy their ability to reason,” attorney Paul Waldner said.

But prosecutors called the Zoloft defense a smokescreen, saying the boy knew exactly what he was doing. Prosecutor Barney Giese said the real motivation for the crime was the boy’s anger at his grandparents for disciplining him for choking a younger student on a school bus.

And he reminded jurors how the boy carried out the killings — shooting his grandfather in the mouth and his grandmother in her head while both lay sleeping.

“I don’t care how old he is. That is as malicious a killing — a murder — as you are ever going to find,” the prosecutor said. He pointed to Pittman’s statement to police in which he said his grandparents “deserved it.”

Juror Christine Peterson said that at first, she felt Zoloft was a factor in the slayings. “It bothered me a lot,” said Peterson, 54, a banker. “It was not an easy decision. But everyone kept saying, ‘Look at the evidence. Look at the evidence.”’

As for Pittman, she said: “I don’t think he was a bad seed. I think he did crazy things as a boy growing up. He didn’t have a stable home life. But that doesn’t excuse what he did.”

Pfizer Inc., the manufacturer of Zoloft, issued a statement saying that it was a tragic case and that the testimony showed Pittman needed help before the slayings.

“Zoloft didn’t cause his problems, nor did the medication drive him to commit murder. On these two points, both Pfizer and the jury agree,” the drug company said.

Earlier cases go both ways
In April, a Santa Cruz, Calif., a man who beat his friend was acquitted by a jury of attempted murder after he blamed the episode on Zoloft. But in at least two cases last year, juries in Michigan and North Dakota rejected similar claims.

Zoloft is the most widely prescribed antidepressant in the United States, with 32.7 million prescriptions written in 2003. Last October, the Food and Drug Administration ordered Zoloft and other antidepressants to carry “black box” warnings — the government’s strongest warning short of a ban — about an increased risk of suicidal behavior in children.

Pittman’s lawyers said they would file an appeal questioning whether the state can constitutionally try a 12-year-old in adult court for murder.

Pittman wept as his father and other family members asked for leniency.

“I love my son with all of my heart,” said Joe Pittman, whose parents were the victims. “And my mom and dad, if they were here today, would be begging for mercy as well.”