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Christopher Frank PITTMAN





Classification: Homicide
Characteristics: Juvenile (12) - Arson
Number of victims: 2
Date of murders: November 28, 2001
Date of arrest: Next day
Date of birth: April 9, 1989
Victims profile: Joe Pittman, 66, and his wife, Joy, 62 (his grandparents)
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Chester County, South Carolina, USA
Status: Sentenced to two concurrent terms of 30 years in prison on February 15, 2005
photo gallery 1 photo gallery 2

The State of South Carolina
In the Supreme Court

opinion 26339

Supreme Court Clinic Files
Certiorari Petition with U.S. Supreme Court

certiorari petition
juvenile law center amicus brief
scientific experts amicus brief
judges amicus brief
juvenile correctional administrators amicus brief
international human rights amicus brief
state’s brief in opposition
supreme court clinic’s reply brief

Christopher Frank Pittman (born April 9, 1989 in Huntsville, Alabama) was convicted in 2005 of murdering his grandparents at age 12. The case drew national attention in part because of his age at the time of the crime and in part because his defense that the prescription drug Zoloft caused him to act.

At age twelve Pittman was put on Paxil for mild depression. This depression escalated when he threatened suicide in front of his sister. His father sent him away from their home in Oxford, Florida to live with his grandparents in Chester, South Carolina where he frequently visited.

His paternal grandparents had been a source of stability to him for years in a life with a mother who had run out on him twice and a father who was frequently abusive.

Paxil was not available in Chester, and a doctor gave him samples of Zoloft instead; although both drugs are SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) with similar modes of selective action, abruptly substituting one for the other is usually not advisable.

Almost immediately Pittman allegedly began to experience negative side-effects from the new medication; his sister went so far as to describe him as “manic.” He purportedly experienced a burning sensation all over his body which required pain medication.

When he complained about the side effects of the drug, the doctor upped his dosage from 100mg daily to 200mg daily. Pittman had an argument on the school bus, choked a fellow student, and later disturbed the person playing piano in his church.

That night, after receiving a paddling from his grandfather, Pittman went into his grandparent's bedroom and murdered them with their own shotgun which he had been taught how to use. After the murder he set fire to the house using a candle and papers.

Pittman took his grandparents' car, their guns, his dog and $33 and left. He was picked up after getting stuck two counties away. Before confessing, he told a story of a large black male who had kidnapped him after murdering his grandparents and setting fire to their house.

When he ultimately confessed he proclaimed that his grandparents deserved what they got. He later claimed that he was under the influence of an overdose of Zoloft. Pittman claimed Zoloft caused Command Hallucinations, a voice telling him to murder his grandparents, and that it was almost like a dream or a television show he was watching but couldn’t stop.

Zoloft does have several side-effects, including aggravated depression, amnesia, abnormal dreams, paranoid reactions, hallucinations, aggressive behavior and delusions. Risks from overdose include potential "manic reactions."

For two days prior to the shooting, Pittman may have been suffering from too high a dose of Zoloft, as well as possibly suffering from Paxil withdrawal.

While being shifted around from facility to facility for the next three years he had an incident where, still suffering from mania, a psychiatrist claims he made several racial slurs against a prison guard very early on in his imprisonment.

There is also evidence that Pittman may have had some problems before he went on Paxil; most were waved off by the defense as a boy being a boy, or simply denied outright.

On Monday, January 31st 2005, three years later, his trial as an adult began. On February 15th 2005 Pittman was convicted of murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison. There was some controversy about the verdict: two of the jurors admitted feeling coerced into their decision, and another juror openly discussed the trial with his wife and bartender during deliberations.

On October 5th, 2006 the South Carolina Supreme Court heard oral arguments on his appeal. A petition to Pardon Pittman was also presented at that time. The Justices were also asked to hold off on moving Pittman to the adult penitentiary, but the delay was denied. On June 11, 2007 the Court affirmed Pittman's conviction by a vote of 4-1.

Discovery Channel later aired an episode of 48 Hours: Hard Evidence, which was devoted to the Pittman case.

Recently, his older sister Danielle married a US Marine and gave birth to a baby girl named Joy (after her paternal grandmother). Christopher remains in SC adult prison and his Florida family still visits when finances & time off allow.

On April 14, 2008, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal to reduce his 30 year sentence.


Teen Gets 30 Years in Zoloft Murder Case

By Bruce Smith, Associated Press Writer

Wed, Feb 16, 2005

CHARLESTON, S.C. - A 15-year-old boy was sentenced to 30 years in prison for murdering his grandparents after jurors rejected the claim that an antidepressant clouded his judgment.

Christopher Pittman was convicted Tuesday after jurors decided that his sense of right and wrong had not been compromised by the drug Zoloft.

The prosecution countered he was simply angry at Joe Pittman, 66, and his wife, Joy, 62, when he killed them in November 2001. They had disciplined him for choking a younger student on a school bus. After shooting them as they slept, Pittman burned the couple's home and drove away in their car.

Pittman's age troubled jurors who debated whether he should be convicted as an adult for crimes committed when he was 12 years old.

"If Chris Pittman had been 25, we could have come to a decision much earlier. Because of his age it was very, very difficult," said jury foreman Arnold Hite. A university professor, he said he was speaking only for himself.

Pittman was sentenced to 30 years on each count of murder. Circuit Court Judge Danny Pieper ordered the sentences to run concurrently — the minimum penalty he could give. The maximum sentence was life in prison.

"I know it's in the hands of God. Whatever he decides on, that's what it's going to be," Pittman told the judge before he was sentenced. The teenager hung his head as the verdict was read.

Pittman's lawyers said they would file an appeal questioning whether the state can constitutionally try someone so young in adult court.

"We're devastated. We're heartbroken," defense attorney Andy Vickery said. "We're mystified the state chooses to treat a 12-year-old as an adult."

South Carolina sets no minimum age for trying defendants as an adult. Pittman's defense tried unsuccessfully last year to get the case heard in Family Court. If he had been convicted in Family Court, he could have been kept in custody only until he turned 21.

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. Last fall, the government ordered warnings on both antidepressants, as well as others, because of the possibility they can cause children to consider suicide.

Juror Christine Peterson, 54, the grandmother of a 12-year-old, said the panel initially was divided on the drug's impact as well as on the question of Pittman's youth.

"It bothered me a lot," she said. "It was not an easy decision. But everyone kept saying, 'Look at the evidence. Look at the evidence.'" She added: "I'm sure many of us had sleepless nights."

Pittman's father, Joe, told the judge he supports his son, even though the victims were his own parents. He also called on Gov. Mark Sanford and President Bush to pardon his son.

"I love my son with all of my heart, as I did my mom and dad," he said. "And mom and dad, if they were here today, would be begging for mercy as well."

Pittman's sister, Danielle Pittman Finchum, said on NBC's "Today" show Wednesday that her brother is not guilty and the family will keep fighting for his release.

"I think everybody failed him in some way or another. I mean, you can't go through life and not fail somebody in a certain way," she said. "We're going to fight for him and if I have to keep fighting for the next 29 years to get him out, he's not going to stay in there the full time that he's supposed to."

Prosecutors said they didn't think the Zoloft defense was viable. "I really think that was a smoke screen," prosecutor John Meadors said later. "He just happened to be on an antidepressant when this happened."

Christopher Pittman initially told police that a black man shot his grandparents, burned down the house and kidnapped him.

Prosecutor Barney Giese reminded jurors how the boy carried out the killings, saying, "I don't care how old he is. That is as malicious a killing — a murder — as you are ever going to find," Giese said.

He pointed to Pittman's statement to police in which he said his grandparents "deserved it."

Pfizer Inc., the manufacturer of Zoloft, said in a statement after the verdict: "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."

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.



Did Zoloft make him do it?

Attorneys for boy on trial argue that he committed manslaughter

By Elaine Cassel -

Monday, February 7, 2005

When he was 12 years old, Christopher Pittman killed his beloved grandparents -- first shooting them with a shotgun, and then setting the house on fire, as he fled. Afterward, Pittman confessed to the crimes.

A few weeks before the killings, Pittman, who suffered from depression, had run away from his parents' Florida home. When found, he was committed to a psychiatric institution. Doctors there prescribed medication - the powerful antidepressant Zoloft.

Pittman says that, when he committed the crime, he was hearing voices that told him to kill his grandparents.

He also reportedly said that beforehand, he had been locked in his room and, when he tried to leave, beaten by his grandfather. (His grandparents were said to have been considering returning him to his parents, due to their inability to control the boy's behavior.)

His defense attorneys maintain that, due to the Zoloft he was taking, Pittman was involuntarily intoxicated, and that he committed manslaughter, not murder.

Now, at 15 years old, Pittman is being tried as an adult for murder in Charleston, South Carolina. Prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty; the Supreme Court has not approved executing a person who was so young when the crime occurred. But if convicted, Pittman could face a term of life imprisonment in an adult facility -- possibly, but not certainly, segregated from the adults there.

Will Pittman's claim that the influence of Zoloft made his crime manslaughter, rather than murder, prevail? In this column, I will discuss the troubling evidence on Zoloft, but I will also note that it may be difficult, nonetheless, for the defense to prevail in persuading a jury that Pittman should be convicted of manslaughter, not murder.

Zoloft and children

Zoloft, like several popular antidepressant medications, has never been specifically approved for use in children. (Zoloft has been approved for treating obsessive-compulsive disorder in children; Prozac, which I discuss below, has been approved for treating depression in children.)

Yet once the FDA approves a drug, it can be used for any purpose, in any population. Disturbingly that means that children aged 1 to 17, who make up 7 percent of the total U.S. population taking prescribed antidepressants, are ingesting psychoactive medications (those that affect the brain's functioning) that, more often than not, have not been clinically tested for efficacy and safety in children.

A 1997 federal law, the FDA Modernization Act, attempted to encourage that drug be tested for children, in particular, but turned out to have loopholes that meant it did not serve its purpose effectively. In an attempt to remedy this problem, a 2002 federal law, the Best Pharmaceuticals for Children Act, gave the FDA the authority to order post-approval testing, for children, of drugs widely used in children. However, the FDA has yet to demand that the very antidepressants and stimulants that are so widely used in children be subjected to post-approval testing for children.

Of course, subjecting children to clinical trials brings its own set of legal and ethical dilemmas. Could parents legitimately offer their children for drug testing without the child's consent? Could their children sue them at a later time if they suffered adverse affects from the clinical trials? Perhaps the safest alternative is to require the consent of both parent (or guardian) and child for testing.

Reasonable minds can differ as to what safeguards ought to be taken. However, one thing is clear: The current situation - in which children take drugs, tested only on adults, that may pose unacceptable dangers to them - cannot continue.

We do a terrible wrong to our children when we allow them to use untested drugs that may cause them to do violence to others, or to themselves.

Zoloft on trial

What about Zoloft, in particular? Is it dangerous for children? Precisely because studies involving children are not required before a drug can be used in children, we simply don't know for sure.

Pfizer, the maker of Zoloft, denies that the drug causes delusions, hallucinations, or triggers violence. Responding to the defense strategy in the Pittman case, Pfizer issued a public statement rejecting the crime's connection to its popular antidepressant. (The statement, notably, does not mention specific concerns about the drug's effect on children.)

But anecdotal evidence, at least, suggests otherwise -- as do some studies.

In 2000, studies emerged showing a possible link between hallucinations and aggression in children and teens taking Zoloft, Paxil, and Prozac. (Moreover, Pittman's attorneys plan to introduce at trial internal Pfizer documents that, they say, show that the manufacturer knew of the possible side effects 20 years ago).

The reports were mostly linked to suicidal, not homicidal behavior. However, an attempt to link these drugs to violence against others is not without precedent. Parents of one of the Columbine, Colorado school killers unsuccessfully sued the makers of another popular antidepressant medication, Paxil, arguing that it was, at least in part, responsible for the homicidal acts of their son.

Paxil works on the brain in the same way as Zoloft and the other popular antidepressants, inhibiting the brain cell's reuptake of serotonin from the synaptic neurons. Hence, the acronym used to refer to these drugs collectively: They are known as SSRIs, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. The drugs enhance the effect of the brain's naturally occurring serotonin, a neurotransmitter that acts as a mood stabilizer.

Just why the drugs might cause hallucinations, delusions, and suicidal (and perhaps homicidal) ideation in young people, as opposed to adults, is not clear, though it might have something to do with the immaturity of the circuitry of the young brain.

In 2004, the FDA heard testimony from members of the public, the drug industry, and the medical profession regarding the use of Zoloft in children. One of the parents speaking out against Zoloft was Pittman's father.

After the hearings, the FDA stopped short of making a finding that the drugs did cause the complained-of side effects. But it did urge the makers of the drugs to put a so-called "black box" warning on the packages, advising doctors and parents to look for signs of aggression, anxiety, and agitation in children and teens taking these medications.

Pittman's defense: Involuntary intoxication

In a variation on an insanity defense, Pittman's legal team is claiming that Pittman's ingestion of prescribed Zoloft caused him to become involuntarily intoxicated on the drug. Involuntary intoxication diminishes criminal responsibility, on the simple ground that the defendant -- intoxicated, but not by his own choice or consent -- is not wholly at fault for crimes committed while he is intoxicated.

In their brief, the attorneys argue that this involuntary intoxication mitigates the malice aforethought required to convict Pittman of first-degree murder. But it's possible the defense will not succeed.

For one thing, as I discussed above, although the FDA-mandated warnings mention aggression as a possible side effect, Zoloft is generally linked to instances of suicide, not homicide, and that weakens the defense.

For another thing, prosecutors have said that when Pittman confessed to the crimes, he was lucid and clear in his statements -- not hazy or intoxicated-seeming. On the other hand, childhood confessions should be examined with a higher level of scrutiny.

In addition, because Pittman tried to cover up the crime through arson, and fled, jurors may believe he had enough presence of mind that he was not intoxicated in the sense that most people use the term.

Legally, however, intoxication is not equivalent to drunkenness: It simply means that the defendant is under the influence of a substance he did not willingly take (perhaps by being duped into drinking something that contained an undisclosed intoxicant), or in this case, that he did willingly take, under doctor's orders, but without the benefit of the warning of possible violence-inducing side effects.

Perhaps the judge, in instructing the jury, will make clear that to be legally intoxicated for these purposes, one need not be, or seem, drunk. But even if the judge does so, the jury may find it hard to reconcile prosecutors' reports of Pittman's lucidity with the defense's claim of intoxication.

Worsening Pittman's chances is the fact that the jury will see before them a relatively healthy adolescent, not the mentally ill child that committed the crime. They may find it difficult -- even impossible -- to see before them that deranged child, rather than the 15-year-old sitting at the defense table. But it is that child, not the more mature --and presumably more mentally healthy -- young man, who is on trial.

This is a dilemma facing all defendants who mount a defense based on mental illness, insanity, or diminished capacity. Since such defendants have to be competent to stand trial -- that is, to be well enough to understand the proceedings and assist their attorney -- they have often been treated (mainly, medicated) in order to make them coherent enough to face their accusers. Pittman's challenge is compounded by the passage of years in which he grew from boy to young man.

A potentially tragic example

As noted above, Pittman now faces possible life imprisonment -- based on what he did as a mentally ill 12-year-old. This is the result of prosecutors' decision to charge him with murder, when manslaughter would have been more appropriate, and also of his being tried as an adult, even at the age of fifteen. (Had he been tried and convicted as a juvenile, his maximum punishment would have been limited to incarceration until he reached the age of 21.)

We need to rethink our eagerness to try children as adults in general -- and more particularly in a case like this one. For when the offense was committed at a very young age, and under the influence of psychotropic medication -- one associated with dangerous side effects that allegedly were known to the maker of the drug, but not disclosed to the medical profession or the public -- the trial of a child as an adult, with the corresponding high penalties, is especially inappropriate.

Thus, the Pittman case is an indictment of both our medical system and our legal system -- supposedly both the world's finest. Our medical system let a 12-year-old down when it allowed a doctor to legally prescribe for him a drug that may well have caused him to have hallucinations and delusions-including the delusion that he heard voices commanding him to commit horrific crimes. Our legal system now is letting a fifteen-year-old down by pretending that he is what he plainly is not: an adult.

This toxic combination suggests that it is not just Pittman, but society, that may be in need of a cure.


Boy's Murder Case Entangled in Fight Over Antidepressants

By Barry Meier - New York Times

August 23, 2004

Christopher Pittman said he remembered everything about that night in late 2001 when he killed his grandparents: the blood, the shotgun blasts, the voices urging him on, even the smoke detectors that screamed as he drove away from their rural South Carolina home after setting it on fire.

"Something kept telling me to do it," he later told a forensic psychiatrist.

Now, Christopher, who was 12 years old at the time of the killings, faces charges of first-degree murder. The decision by a local prosecutor to try him as an adult could send him to prison for life. While prosecutors portray him as a troubled killer, his defenders say the killings occurred for a reason beyond the boy's control - a reaction to the antidepressant Zoloft, a drug he had started taking for depression not long before the slayings.

Such defenses, which have been used before, have rarely succeeded. And most medical experts do not believe there is a link between antidepressants and acts of extreme violence.

But the Pittman case has attracted special attention because it is among the first to arise amid a national debate over the safety of antidepressant use in children and teenagers. Depression is a complex condition, and antidepressants like Zoloft have helped countless children and adults.

In recent months, however, the federal Food and Drug Administration has been examining data from clinical trials indicating that some depressed children and adolescents taking antidepressants think more about suicide and attempt it more often than patients given placebos. The findings varied between drugs. The F.D.A. is scheduled to hold an advisory committee meeting on the issue next month.

Against that backdrop, the case of Christopher Pittman - an otherwise obscure small-town murder case that may go to trial this fall - has become a battleground, where the scientific threads of the F.D.A. debate have become entangled with courtroom arguments and a family's tragedy.

Pfizer, the maker of Zoloft, has helped the county solicitor who is prosecuting Christopher Pittman. Plaintiffs' lawyers from Houston and Los Angeles, who between them have brought numerous civil lawsuits against Pfizer and other antidepressant makers, have signed onto the defense team. Groups opposed to pediatric antidepressant use have also championed the boy's case, which is being played out in Chester, S.C., a small town near the North Carolina border.

Locally, some people involved in the Pittman case said they have been stunned by the rush of outsiders. Even a forensic psychiatrist, who testified at a hearing that she believed that Christopher committed the murders while in a psychotic state induced by Zoloft, said she worried that the publicity may frighten parents whose children could benefit from Zoloft and similar drugs.

"I wished it could be staying in Chester, S.C., with this one kid," said the psychiatrist, Dr. Lanette Atkins of nearby Columbia, S.C., who has been retained by Christopher's public defender.

While the pediatric antidepressant debate has focused on potential suicide risks, aggressive behavior can be a side effect of antidepressants. There have also been case reports of adults and children on antidepressants acting violently. But only a handful of psychiatrists have ever argued that such medications can unleash rages so uncontrollable as to overwhelm a person's ability to distinguish between right and wrong and commit murder.

With the Pittman case pending, Pfizer, based in New York, declined to make company executives or lawyers available to be interviewed for this article. The company has previously said that no regulatory agency has ever found a connection between Zoloft and suicidal or homicidal behavior.

Zoloft belongs to a class of medications known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or S.S.R.I.'s, which also includes other popular drugs like Paxil and Prozac. In the last year, federal drug regulators have issued cautionary statements about most S.S.R.I.'s and similar medications prescribed for the treatment of pediatric depression. The one exception has been Prozac, the only S.S.R.I. formally approved for pediatric use after it was shown to be effective in tests with children and adolescents.

Regulators issued their advisories after a re-examination of drug makers' test data, much of which had not been publicly released. The disclosure of the test results has spurred demands by doctors' groups and others that drug companies be required to list all drug tests publicly, and a few producers have announced plans to do so.

If for some doctors such controversies seemed to have sprung up suddenly, the issues behind them were already stirring about three years ago - right around the time that Christopher Pittman fired four shotgun blasts into his grandparents as they slept.

A Last Chance Goes Wrong

When Christopher Pittman arrived in Chester in October 2001 to live with his paternal grandparents, Joe and Joy Pittman, the move seemed like his last, best chance to find stability.

He felt abandoned by his mother, according to medical reports. And his relationship with his father, who raised him in Florida, was troubled. "I haven't had that good a life; my real mom left when I was 2," Christopher Pittman told a forensic psychiatrist with the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice.

Psychiatric reports suggest that Christopher's tailspin began when his parents revived their relationship in 2001, only to end it yet again. After his mother left this time, he threatened to kill himself and was hospitalized. His diagnosis, records show, was mild chronic depression accompanied by defiant and negative behavior. He was put on Paxil.

But after about a week, his father, also named Joe, decided to remove him from the hospital and send him to live with his grandparents. There, a doctor put Christopher on Zoloft, the most widely prescribed S.S.R.I. antidepressant for pediatric patients and adults alike.

Initially, Christopher Pittman appeared to thrive. After a few weeks in Chester, though, he got into a dispute on a school bus and his grandparents threatened to send him back to his father. By the next morning, they were dead.

Dr. Pamela M. Crawford, a forensic psychiatrist who was asked by the case's prosecutor to examine the boy, concluded in her report that Christopher knew what he was doing when he took his grandparents' lives.

He provided "nonpsychotic reasons" for killing his grandparents, setting fire to the house, taking money from his grandparents and then stealing their car, Dr. Crawford's report states. "Following his detention by police, Christopher made self-protective statements to avoid arrest prior to admitting his actions."

Citing the continuing case, both Dr. Crawford and Dr. Atkins, the other forensic psychiatrist, declined to answer questions about their reports or court testimony.

At the time of the murders, questions about the safety of antidepressants were focused on adults, not youngsters. Just a few months earlier, a plaintiff's lawyer, Arnold Vickery, who is known as Andy, had convinced a federal jury hearing a lawsuit in Cheyenne, Wyo., that Paxil had caused a man to go on a murderous rampage.

In June 2001, that jury ordered GlaxoSmithKline, the maker of Paxil, to pay $6.5 million to the relatives of Donald Schell, who, two days after starting on the drug, murdered his wife, his daughter and his granddaughter before killing himself. The company appealed, before settling the case, for undisclosed terms.

It is hard to draw comparisons between civil lawsuits and criminal cases like the one involving Christopher Pittman. Still, the Wyoming verdict was significant because it was the first time, after more than a decade of litigation, that a jury had concluded that an S.S.R.I.-type antidepressant could make users so agitated and unbalanced that they could kill others or themselves.

The Wyoming award has not led to similar verdicts, and drug makers like Pfizer take the position that antidepressants do not cause suicide or homicide.

Contradictory Reports

Little is known about Christopher Pittman's response to Paxil, because he took the drug for only a few days. And reports about his reactions to Zoloft vary sharply.

He later told a psychiatrist that his mood changed on the medication, to the extent that he "didn't have any feelings."

The notes of the local doctor who prescribed the medication for Christopher paint a different picture, according to court records.

That physician, who saw Christopher just a few days before the killings, described him this way: "Lots of energy. No plans to harm self. Not flying off the handle."

Psychiatrists have long known that adult patients might experience increased suicidal thinking or agitation during the first weeks of treatment with S.S.R.I.-type antidepressants. But in May 2003 GlaxoSmithKline made a disclosure related to pediatric use of the drug, which would set off a cascade of events that are still in motion.

That month, the drug maker told the federal Food and Drug Administration and its British counterpart agency that its re-examination of published and unpublished test data showed that adolescents who took Paxil during clinical trials had more suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide more often than those who received a placebo. About six months earlier, a curious F.D.A. analyst had contacted the company seeking more safety information.

Within weeks, British drug regulators told doctors not to prescribe Paxil to new patients younger than 18. In June 2003, the F.D.A followed suit, and a month later the agency asked all antidepressant makers for more safety data about their pediatric tests. In the weeks leading up to an emotionally charged F.D.A. hearing this past February on antidepressant safety, doctors learned that the drug industry had not published all the data gathered during pediatric trials of the medications.

Dr. David G. Fassler, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Burlington, Vt., who attended the meeting, recalled being struck by the number of pediatric studies he had never known about although he followed medical journals.

"This was a lot more data than I knew existed," said Dr. Fassler, who is an official of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, a professional group. That hearing also served as a public forum for grieving parents to testify about children who had committed suicide soon after they had started on antidepressants. Joe Pittman, Christopher's father, was there, reading a letter written by his son in prison, in which he blamed Zoloft for his grandparents' deaths.

"Through the whole thing, it was like watching your favorite TV show," wrote Christopher, who is now 15. "You know what is going to happen but you can't do anything to stop it." A Gathering of Lawyers

By then, his case had become the center of a pitched legal struggle. Mr. Vickery, the plaintiffs' lawyer who had won the Wyoming trial, was contacted about the Pittman case by the International Coalition for Drug Awareness, a group based in Utah opposed to antidepressant use.

Over the past decade, the group's director, Ann Blake Tracy, has become involved in several murder cases in which a defendant has been on antidepressants or other drugs. Ms. Tracy maintains that antidepressants "overstimulate the brain stem and cause you to go into a sleep-walk state where you can act out the nightmares you have." Mr. Vickery, who has been suing antidepressant makers since the mid-1990's, soon joined the defense team, offering his services for free. So did another plaintiffs' lawyer who has filed similar lawsuits, Karen Barth Menzies of Los Angeles.

Lawyers for Pfizer have also gotten involved. The case's prosecutor, Chester County Solicitor John R. Justice, was recently hospitalized with a serious illness and has not been available to comment. But he stated at a court hearing that Pfizer had provided information to him last year to help him prepare for the trial, according to a published report in The Herald, a newspaper in Rock Hill, S.C.

Christopher Taylor, an assistant country solicitor, said he thought that Pfizer had contacted Mr. Justice. The material provided by Pfizer, the article reported, included F.D.A. reports about Zoloft and previous court testimony by a psychiatrist, Dr. Peter R. Breggin, who is scheduled to testify on Christopher Pittman's behalf. Dr. Breggin, who has campaigned against the use of psychotropic drugs in children, has testified in numerous lawsuits and criminal trials that a link exists between S.S.R.I.-type antidepressants and both suicide and violence - positions rejected by drug makers like Pfizer and by many other experts.

"I have been given advice on how to cross Breggin," Mr. Justice was quoted as saying, adding that he had "been schooled on how these drugs are supposed to work."

The involvement of a drug company like Pfizer in a criminal proceeding is not unusual. Jennifer Yoder, a spokeswoman for Eli Lilly & Company, the maker of Prozac, said that over the years, a "Prozac defense" had been raised about 75 times in criminal cases and that the company had worked with prosecutors at times. She said she was unaware of any case in which the Prozac defense succeeded.

Not long ago, Mr. Vickery and Ms. Menzies asked the case's presiding judge to order the release of scores of Pfizer company documents about pediatric trials of Zoloft, claiming they were critical to their client's case. Those records were reviewed in the past by Ms. Menzies, the plaintiffs' lawyer, as part of a 2002 civil lawsuit filed in a Los Angeles federal court against Pfizer by the widow of a man who committed suicide a week after starting on Zoloft. The case was dismissed before trial.

According to court filings, the documents include early drafts of a published positive pediatric report about Zoloft that was later criticized by researchers for its methodology. F.D.A. officials also did not find that the study provided convincing evidence of Zoloft's efficacy in children and adolescents. Both Mr. Vickery and Ms. Menzies said they were barred from speaking specifically about the Pfizer documents because they were covered by confidentially agreements they had signed during civil proceedings. But with the Pittman defense, "I am hopeful that this case is the one that all of Pfizer's dirty laundry comes out," Mr. Vickery said.

Pfizer's lawyers have argued in court papers in the Pittman case that the documents being sought have nothing to do with the boy's situation, also noting that a Florida judge struck down a request for company records in a similar case. In addition, they have effectively accused Mr. Vickery and Ms. Menzies of using the case to make a cynical end run in order to obtain documents they want for other Zoloft-related lawsuits they are pursuing.

A Case in Limbo

A Pfizer spokeswoman, Mariann Caprino, said in an e-mail message that Mr. Vickery had made a business out of suing antidepressant makers. "In his three cases against Pfizer that were decided by the court in which he claimed Zoloft caused suicide, each case was decided in Pfizer's favor and dismissed by the court," she stated.

The case's presiding judge has yet to rule on the document disclosure issue.

Christopher Pittman's trial, scheduled to begin this fall, may be delayed because of the illness of Mr. Justice, the prosecutor. The teenager's lawyers are trying to move his case to juvenile court, where if convicted, he would be released by age 21 from a juvenile facility.

Meanwhile, lawyers like Mr. Vickery have continued to file lawsuits. Although Mr. Vickery failed earlier this year in his first attempt use an S.S.R.I. defense to win an acquittal in a murder case, at a trial in Detroit, the calculus of such cases may be changing.

In April, a time of intense media publicity about the issue, a man was acquitted of attempted murder after a state jury in Santa Cruz, Calif., found that he was not liable for his actions because of a reaction to Zoloft.

The case's prosecutor, Barbara Rizzieri, an assistant district attorney for Santa Cruz County, said the growing debate about antidepressants had played a role in the outcome. "If this had happened a year ago," she said "it truly would have been different."



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