CHARLESTON, S.C. — A teenager who
killed his grandparents when he was 12 years old was convicted of
two counts of murder Tuesday by jurors who rejected his claim that
an antidepressant made him unable to discern right from wrong.
A judge immediately sentenced Christopher Pittman, now 15, to 30
years in prison, the mandatory minimum sentence prescribed by state
Speaking for the first time at any length since his trial began
Jan. 31, Christopher told Judge Danny Pieper that the sentence would
be decided by God.
"All I can really say is, I know it's in the hands of God,"
Christopher said. "Whatever he decides on is what it's going to be."
Christopher, 15, bowed his head but showed no emotion as court
clerk Scott Wilson read the verdict after jurors deliberated for
about six and a half hours over two days. Before he was sentenced,
family members asked the judge for leniency.
"I love my son very dearly and want to beg you for mercy on my
son, on his behalf," said Joe Frank Pittman Jr., Christopher's
father and the son of the victims.
"I love my son with all my heart, as I did my mom and dad. If
they were here today, they'd be begging for mercy," Pittman said.
Melinda Pittman Rector, daughter of the victims, Joe Pittman, 66,
and Joy Pittman, 62, echoed the sentiment.
"That was not my nephew that night," she said, referring to the
effects of the drug Zoloft on Christopher. "He's a good kid. We have
a good family and we miss him."
Lead defense attorney Andy Vickery told the judge that if he
wanted to, he could rule that the South Carolina law mandating a
minimum sentence of 30 years was unconstitutional, given
Christopher's age at the time of the killings.
"You have a legislative mandate that says you shall not give him
less than 30 years but you have a constitutional imperative ... that
the sentence must be in light of the full circumstances, including
Judge, jurors speak out
The judge said he was sympathetic but was bound by the law.
"This is a very tragic case, tragic to the victim and tragic to
the entire family," Pieper said. "This case has called attention to
the very core values of this society about the treatment of
juveniles and punishment."
Pieper then sentenced Christopher to 30 years for each of the
killings, to run concurrently.
"Good luck to you," Pieper told the defendant.
All but one juror refused to speak to reporters about the verdict
or the deliberations.
Steven Platt, a 26-year-old accounting clerk for an electrical
supply wholesaler, said the group believed that Christopher
exhibited side effects from Zoloft but did not feel it was severe
enough to let him escape criminal responsibility.
"It always seemed to me that the defense was grasping at straws.
They were always trying to use the drug's side effects as a smoke
screen, just like the prosecution said in the closing arguments,"
Platt said. "They were trying to throw us off focus. That's how it
seemed to me."
According to Platt, the jury was leaning 9-3 toward conviction
when deliberations began Monday. He said the biggest hurdle the
group had to overcome was Christopher's age.
"It was difficult, simply because he was 12 years old when he did
this," Platt said. "That was the big factor in the deliberations we
did. That played a major role in the difficulty."
The appearance of Christopher's father in court was the first
since the trial began. He told the court that he did not want his
presence to become a distraction, a reference to testimony that
Christopher went to live with his grandparents to get away from his
|Christopher Pittman's father, Joe Frank
Pittman Jr., was in court for the first time Tuesday.
Prosecutors say it was Christopher's intense dislike for being
disciplined that fueled the rage that caused him to kill.
On Nov. 28, 2001, Christopher was angry with his paternal
grandparents because they punished him for an incident on a school
bus the previous day. According to the boy's confession, he lay in
bed waiting for the couple to fall asleep before loading a
.410-gauge shotgun his father had given him as a gift the previous
Christopher told police that he pumped birdshot through his
grandfather's open mouth. He shot Joy Pittman in the side of the
head. A forensic pathologist testified that both victims were dead
before Christopher set a fire that consumed the Pittman's modest
home in rural South Carolina.
Christopher told police that Joe Pittman deserved to die because
he paddled the boy. Joy Pittman was killed because she did nothing
to stop it, according to the boy's confession.
Although Christopher's lawyers blamed an adverse reaction to
Zoloft for making Christopher manic and psychotic, defense attorneys
Andy Vickery and Paul Waldner tried unsuccessfully to persuade
jurors that Christopher could not form the criminal intent to commit
murder because of his age.
The defense stipulated that Christopher killed his grandparents,
leaving prosecutors only to rebut the presumption under South
Carolina law that people under the age of 14 cannot form criminal
intent to commit murder. To do that, prosecutors highlighted
Christopher's confession, including his account of planning the
murders and his getaway.
Prosecutors also highlighted the fact that Christopher initially
tried to blame the killings on someone else and finally told
detectives that he was not sorry for what happened.
"They deserved it," Christopher said to several law enforcement
officers and at least one mental-health professional.
The defense, however, tried to establish that everything
Christopher did, said or failed to do was either misinterpreted,
someone else's fault or the result of an adverse reaction to the
Jurors heard that the antidepressant and others in its class have
been linked to increased suicide ideation, agitation, restlessness
and other abnormal behavior in adolescents.
Prosecutors called the Zoloft defense a "smoke screen" during
|Christopher Pittman's sister,
Danielle Finchum, spoke to reporters after the verdict.
Platt said jurors were very impressed with Dr. James Ballenger, a
state witness whom the defense called as part of its case. Ballenger
offered the opinion that Christopher knew right from wrong as
evidenced by his careful planning, attempt to avoid prosecution and
The jury did not find the defense's chief expert, child
psychiatrist Lanette Atkins, reliable. Atkins testified that
although she could not form an opinion about whether Christopher
knew right from wrong when he killed his grandparents when she
testified last year, she since came to the conclusion that he could
not have known because of his Zoloft use.
Platt said prosecutors easily overcame their burden of proving
the boy knew right from wrong by putting on evidence about the fire
Christopher set and his own statements that he was trying to get
away without being caught.
The defense claim that the fire and statements were a product of
the antidepressant just did not fly, Platt said.
"It all flowed too well for someone who wouldn't know right from
wrong," the juror said.
Christopher, who is awaiting trial for arson in family court, was
immediately taken into custody by court officers and will be
confined in South Carolina's Juvenile Detention Center in Columbia.
If the nine women and three men on the jury had found him guilty
but mentally ill or not guilty by reason of insanity, he would have
been confined to a forensic psychiatric hospital for an undetermined
length of time.