(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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
"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
Cassel - CNN.com
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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'
"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
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
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,
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
"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
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."