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Jury deciding boy's fate in Zoloft defense case

From Jim Polk

South Carolina
Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (CNN) -- A jury began deliberations Monday afternoon in the trial of Chris Pittman, 15, who is being tried as an adult in the shotgun slayings of his grandparents.

In closing arguments, prosecutor John Meadors belittled the defense's contention that the antidepressant Zoloft caused Pittman, then 12, to carry out the shootings, calling such an argument a "smoke screen."

"The only issue is -- did he know the difference between right and wrong?" Meadors said, telling the jury the boy did know.

"Shooting them in bed with a [.410-gauge shotgun]," he said, "that's malice, meanness, wickedness."

But defense attorney Paul Waldner told jurors, "In this state, in this country, we do not convict children of murder when they've been ambushed by chemicals that have destroyed their ability to reason."

If found guilty, Pittman could be sent to prison or to a mental institution for 30 years to life.

Through an uncontested stipulation, Pittman's attorneys have acknowledged that the boy carried a shotgun into his grandparents' bedroom on November 28, 2001, shot them to death in their sleep and burned down their house outside Chester, South Carolina.

"I think he did it because he was very mad, very angry," testified Dr. James Ballenger, a psychiatrist for the prosecution.

Not so, said Dr. Lanette Atkins, a psychiatrist for the defense who testified the boy told her he heard voices, "echoes from inside his head, saying, 'Kill, kill, do it, do it.' "

The issue facing jurors is criminal intent -- as the trial judge, Daniel Pieper, explained when teaching the principle to a freshman law class last week. "An act does not make one guilty unless the mind is guilty," he said.

Defense psychiatrist Dr. Richard Kapit testified, "He did not have the ability to form criminal intent on that date due to intoxication with Zoloft."

But prosecution psychiatrist Dr. Pamela Crawford said the boy did, as evidenced that he burned down the house to cover up the crime. "It shows not only that he knew it was wrong, that he knew it was legally wrong to do this," Crawford testified.

Unhappy home life

Pittman was a troubled child from an unhappy home headed by a single father who was a stern disciplinarian. The boy ran away from home and then threatened suicide. He was sent to a psychiatric center in Florida for six days before his grandparents brought him to their home in rural upstate South Carolina.

A doctor in Chester prescribed a starter dose of Zoloft as a substitute for another antidepressant Pittman had taken in the psychiatric center. Family members say the boy became fidgety, couldn't sit still and talked about his skin being on fire -- signs of compulsive restlessness that some doctors have warned is a possible side effect of the medication.

When the boy got into a fight with a younger child on the school bus, his grandfather talked of sending him back to Florida. That night, the youth lay awake in his room, then got his shotgun, loaded it with birdshot and walked into his grandparents' bedroom while they were asleep.

In his signed confession, Pittman said, "I went into the bedroom. I just aimed at the bed. I shot four times."

Pittman is being tried as an adult on two counts of murder. The law requires that he be sentenced to 30 years to life if he is found guilty.

The jury also could find him guilty but mentally ill. Such a verdict also would mean 30 years to life, but in a mental facility.

Other options include innocent by reason of temporary insanity or innocent for lack of intent.

The judge ruled the jury could decide, if the evidence supported it, that Zoloft intoxicated Pittman and he did not know the difference between right and wrong when the crime was committed.

The defense also asked the jury be allowed the choice of a lesser verdict, involuntary manslaughter, or even voluntary manslaughter. The judge rejected that motion Monday.

Zoloft is one of the most popular antidepressants, part of a newer generation of such drugs pioneered by Prozac. Although not approved for treating children with depression, it is widely prescribed for younger patients.

Zoloft's manufacturer, Pfizer Inc., has denied there is any scientific evidence that the drug leads to violence toward others.

The Food and Drug Administration has retreated from an earlier warning that such antidepressants can cause suicidal actions among children and teenagers.

In a revised warning posted recently on its Web site, the FDA said the drugs "increased the risk of suicidal thinking and behavior in short-term studies of adolescents and children" with depression and other psychiatric disorders. (Full story)

Limiting the warning language to a risk seen in studies, rather than saying the drugs could cause suicidal behavior in younger patients, was a significant retreat for the FDA -- and came after months of pharmaceutical industry lobbying.

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