TOP STORY Updated: 04/06/06

Pittman transfer to adult prison delayed

Soon to be 17-year-old to stay in juvenile detention for 6 more months
By Andrew Dys The Herald

Christopher Pittman, sentenced to 30 years in prison last year for killing his grandparents in rural Chester County when he was 12 years old, won't be transferred to adult prison after he turns 17 on Sunday, state officials said Wednesday.

"Many, many prayers have been answered," said Delnora Duprey, Pittman's maternal grandmother who plans to visit Pittman on Sunday.

6 months or until appeal heard

Good behavior got Pittman the reprieve to stay in juvenile detention for up to six months or until the S.C. Supreme Court hears his appeal in the coming months, said Bill Byars, director of the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice.

"If he had been a problem, he'd be gone," Byars said.

Pittman was prosecuted and sentenced as an adult in February 2005 and will have to spend most of the next 25 years in adult prison if his appeal fails. Usually, inmates in juvenile detention who turn 17 are sent to the S.C. Department of Corrections. But a DJJ treatment team recommended that Pittman be allowed to stay in juvenile detention, Byars said Wednesday.

Byars, a former judge, agreed.

Although Pittman's family and lawyers claimed antidepressants caused the killings of Joy and Joe Frank Pittman, a jury in Charleston found Pittman guilty. Pittman is appealing on grounds of his young age at the time of the crimes and other alleged trial errors. The Supreme Court has expedited the appeal but has not set a hearing date.

Officials with the S.C. Attorney General's Office, expected to submit court documents in the next two weeks that will fight Pittman's appeal, declined to comment Wednesday.

The Pittman case attracted national attention and sparked a debate about treatment of juveniles in courts because of the antidepressant defense and Pittman's young age when he killed his grandparents. Yet Pittman received no special treatment with the extension, Byars said. The segregated population where Pittman lives among juveniles sentenced as adults is "more locked down that most of the others here."

DJJ can keep offenders past age 17 who show good behavior, Byars said, a tactic often used as an incentive.

Pittman's lead lawyer, Andy Vickery of Texas, hailed the DJJ decision.

"One of the main issues we are raising on appeal is that Chris was 12 years old at the time of the event," Vickery said. "He needs to be treated like a 12-year-old."

State law allows prosecutors to try children as adults for some crimes. If Pittman was found guilty as a juvenile in Family Court, the maximum penalty he faced was prison until age 21. The 30-year sentence Pittman received is the minimum he could get under state law as an adult.

Pittman burned his grandparents' house down to cover up the crime. His maternal grandmother, Delnora Duprey, said her grandson is a "sweet child" whose character and actions in 2001 were changed by the antidepressant medication. She remains hopeful that the Supreme Court will overturn the conviction.

"I believe in punishment," Duprey said. "Someone commits a crime, they should be punished. But I also believe in justice."

Pittman got 30 years for something that happened while he was just 12 and on medication that was wrongfully prescribed, his grandmother said. He had no prior criminal record.

Yet prosecutors have said medication or not, Pittman was a cold-blooded killer who executed his sleeping grandparents because they disciplined him. Prosecutors maintain that the viciousness of the crime shows that the public would be at risk if Pittman was not prosecuted as an adult.

"If he could do that to his grandparents, what would he do in the future?" said John Justice, the Chester County prosecutor who handled the case for years before ill health forced Columbia's Barney Giese and John Meadors to take over for the trial.

Giese and Meadors could not be reached Wednesday.

Vickery also said Wednesday that he will file separate documents with the Supreme Court this week asking for a new trial because of FDA rulings that came out after the February 2005 trial that support defense claims about the dangers of antidepressant use among children.

Byars said Wednesday that all children incarcerated at DJJ have to attend school. In the four and half years of Pittman's incarceration, Pittman has done well in school, Vickery and Duprey said. Pittman is waiting for General Equivalency Diploma test results in the mail, Duprey said. He plays basketball once in a while. He prays.

"He is a very scripturally grounded young man," Duprey said.

On Sunday, Duprey said she might bring Pittman pizza or Chinese food. Maybe some cookies and candy. A faith in God that the courts will overturn the verdict keeps Duprey going, she said, and also buoys her grandson's spirits.

But until the Supreme Court rules whether he gets a new trial or affirms his 30-year sentence, Pittman will pray in juvenile detention rather than adult prison.

Andrew Dys 329-4065