A cruel prosecution of a troubled child
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- In any other legal context, he would have been called "Christopher", or "Chris," or "the child" or the "the boy."
Last Monday, however, when the South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed his conviction and 30 year jail term in an adult prison, its lengthy opinion referred to him only as "Pittman," his last name, just as it would have if, on that tragic day six years ago, he had been a full-fledged adult instead of a psychiatrically-impaired 12- year-old-child.
Christopher Pittman came to live with his beloved paternal grandparents after his chaotic home life in Florida drove him to attempt suicide, an act that led to his commitment to a psychiatric facility. Upon his release, a South Carolina physician switched his medication to Zoloft, an antidepressant not recommended for use by children.
According to two highly qualified expert witnesses who testified at his trial, Christopher was "involuntarily intoxicated" on Zoloft and exhibiting psychotic features when he shot his grandparents to death in their bed on Nov. 28, 2001.
Christopher was taken into custody by Deputy Lucinda McKellar who, after informing him of his Miranda rights, induced the isolated little boy to purportedly waive his constitutional rights and confess to the killings. Incredibly, there was no recording made of the interrogation.
The ensuing murder charges against Christopher could have been heard in Family Court, a salutary, confidential forum whose focus would have been on providing him with the rehabilitative services he desperately needed.
Unfortunately, but all too typically these days, yahoo prosecutors were utterly indifferent to the child's plight.
So they vigorously objected to the Family Court's adjudicating the case just as they vehemently opposed a defense request that reasonable bail be set. Lacking the judicial courage required in this terrible time for America's kids, the court sided with prosecutors on both matters.
Christopher thus remained in custody for well over three years before being brought to trial, an unconscionable delay.
After the jury convicted him -- a result that should have surprised nobody --Christopher's aunt, Melinda Pittman Rector, whose parents were the deceased victims, told the presiding judge that her mother and father would have been pleading on Christopher's behalf because "That was not my nephew that night. He was a good kid."
Under South Carolina law, however, the mandatory minimum sentence was 30 years in jail and that was the sentence meted out by the court for the psychiatrically induced, totally-out-of-character behavior of an emotionally disturbed 12-year-old child.
While the outcome here wreaks of institutional evil, legal options remain for Christopher. Most intriguing is an application to the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. While only a tiny fraction of such requests are granted, there are aspects of Christopher's case that just might entice the court to entertain the appeal.
For example, it's been 40 years since the Supreme Court addressed a case involving multi-faceted juvenile justice issues. When Matter of Gault was decided in 1967, kids in their middle teens were routinely tried in juvenile courts even for the most serious felonies.
Because juvenile proceedings often lacked the formality of adult criminal actions, the Supreme Court enunciated the minimum constitutional rights to which youngsters were entitled in juvenile courts.
Today, in sharp contrast, with very young children being senselessly prosecuted in adult courts, the time is ripe for the Supreme Court to address the issues raised by this ugly new landscape.
For example, the court might well be persuaded that a 12-year-old is too young to fully understand or effectively waive his constitutional rights, especially with the looming specter of lengthy jail terms in adult prisons.
If so, the court could provide children with a measure of protection against police and prosecutorial abuse by holding a child's confession inadmissible unless given in the presence of a parent or guardian who has also been informed of the youngster's Miranda rights.
In addition, employing the same reasoning it used in striking down the death penalty for juveniles, the court might also be ready to declare that mandatory jail terms for children are unconstitutional given the now scientifically documented immaturity of the adolescent brain.
If the Supreme Court does agree to hear Christopher's appeal, these and a few other arguments raised in his defense would likely resonate well with Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer. That would leave the outcome up to Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a philosophical moderate, who, incidentally, provided the pivotal fifth vote in the court's 2005 ruling banning the execution of juveniles.
The barbaric brutalization of Christopher Pittman by the State of South Carolina will stink in the annals of history. How supremely gratifying it would be if his case turns out to be the one that brings about desperately needed reforms from the nation's highest court.
Daniel Leddy's On The Law column appears each Tuesday on the Advance Op-Ed Page. His e-mail address is JudgeLeddy@si.rr.com.
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
This Thursday, at 9:30 a.m., Chief Justice Jean Hoefer Toal will call the South Carolina Supreme Court to order. The larger than usual gallery of spectators will include a 10-ton elephant that will take center stage when the State vs. Christopher Frank Pittman is called for oral arguments.
Indeed, the fate of the boy who was 12 years old and weighed a mere 100 pounds on a fateful evening in November, 2001 may well depend on whether the judges notice the gigantic pachyderm standing right smack in front of him.
Christopher's mother abandoned the boy shortly after he was born, consigning the child and his sister to an unstable home life populated by an overbearing father and a succession of disappearing stepmothers. The boy did, however, have an especially close bond with his paternal grandparents, Joe and Joy Pittman, who lived near the family's home in Florida.
In the summer of 2001, Christopher's mother suddenly reappeared in his young life. Being just a little boy, Christopher didn't understand that a mother who summarily discards her child isn't a good candidate for spontaneous redemption. So, he naively chose to believe that a new life awaited the family, a child-like profession of faith for which she promptly rewarded him by taking off once again.
His dreams of normalcy shattered, the devastated boy was overtaken by a deep depression. After threatening to kill himself, Christopher was committed to a psychiatric facility.
Upon being released to the custody of his grandparents, Christopher was prescribed Zoloft, an antidepressant not recommended for use by children. From the outset, the youngster suffered severe negative reactions to the powerful drug, culminating in the tragic events of Nov. 28, 2001 when he shot and killed both of his beloved grandparents while they were sleeping in their home.
When Lucinda Mckeller of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division eventually took Christopher into custody, she told the isolated, distraught and thoroughly defenseless child to call her "Lucy" and then proceeded to extract a "confession" out of him -- written by her own hand and featuring lofty adult language -- wherein he purported to admit to having killed because his grandfather had been physically abusive to him.
Incredibly, Mckeller not only assumed that this child fully understood his Miranda rights but voluntarily waived them. In fact, she didn't even accord the boy the safeguard of recording the interrogation.
Prosecutors seized upon the confession to indulge in the popular, albeit counterintuitive notion, that little children leapfrog into adulthood by doing particularly bad things. Thus, Christopher was tried in the Charleston Circuit Court and convicted of two counts of murder by a South Carolina jury in February of last year.
This, despite compelling testimony from highly credentialed expert witnesses that Christopher was under the profound influence of Zoloft's alarming effects at the time of the incident and unable to resist the drug's command hallucination to kill.
Thereafter, Judge Daniel Pieper, brushing aside evidence of serious jury misconduct and a compelling argument that the prescribed mandatory sentence was unconstitutional, sentenced Christopher to an adult prison for a minimum term of 30 years. These are among the several issues that the Supreme Court will consider this Thursday.
Most intriguing, however, is an argument posited on a provision of South Carolina law that a child between the ages of 7 and 14 is presumed to be incapable of having the mental capacity to commit a crime. The prosecution can, however, rebut the presumption by presenting appropriate evidence that a particular child between those ages does possess the capacity to commit a crime.
The prosecution produced no expert testimony as to Christopher's criminal capacity on its direct case. After the state rested, however, the defense made only a general motion for dismissal without specifically citing the prosecution's failure to establish Christopher's mental capacity to commit a crime.
The prosecution now argues that the defense thereby waived the argument on appeal. The defense counters that its general motion to dismiss was sufficient to preserve the issue for appellate review. While this critical issue should have been specifically raised by the defense after the state rested its case, the defense's general motion was probably sufficient to raise the matter on appeal given the enormous stakes involved.
That brings us back to the 10-ton elephant stalking the halls of justice down in Charleston. Christopher was 12 when he killed his grandparents. If this young child is an adult, the 16-year-old page to whom a Florida congressman sent suggestive e-mails must be a senior citizen. Why such concern for his well-being?
Why can't Christopher and others like him vote, sit on juries, smoke cigarettes, drink beer, enlist in the military, skip school, hold public office or drive automobiles? Why is society so committed to preventing child abuse on the one hand while fostering it by sending little children to be beaten, brutalized and sexually accosted by hardened adult prisoners?
When Christopher Pittman killed his grandparents, he was a child and not an adult. No prosecution however persuasive, no legal fiction however indulged, no rationale however twisted, and no political agenda, however morally bankrupt, can change that -- ever.
That is the 10- ton elephant that will position itself before the judges of the South Carolina Supreme Court this Thursday. If they see the prodigious creature, their decision will write itself and Christopher Pittman's agonizing five year ordeal will be over.
Daniel Leddy's On The Law column appears each Tuesday on the Advance Op-Ed Page. His e-mail address is JudgeLeddy@si.rr.com.
Monday, June 06, 2005
Trial jurors are routinely given explicit instructions by the court which
they are required by law to obey. Those who fail to do so subvert justice
by denying the respective litigants their right to a fair trial.
Nevertheless, jurors who misbehave are too often treated with kid gloves,
receiving little more than tepid expressions of displeasure from the
court. This is unfortunate because the integrity of our judicial system
demands that they be held fully accountable for breaching their oaths as
Monday, February 21, 2005
After deliberating less than seven hours, a jury in Charleston, S.C., last week convicted Christopher Pittman of murdering his grandparents three years ago when he was 12 years of age.
Although there were none of his peers on the jury because the law deems them too young to serve, the empanelled jurors proved conclusively that adulthood doesn't necessarily herald the advent of intelligence or even common sense. Thus, they rejected the testimony of two highly credentialed psychiatrists that Christopher's actions were the result of his being involuntarily intoxicated on Zoloft, an anti-depressant medication prescribed after he had attempted suicide.
As it turned out, justice would have been better served with a jury of kids because these 12 adults couldn't recognize reasonable doubt if it hit them in the head with a two-by-four.
At the sentencing, lead defense attorney Andy Vickery asked Judge Daniel Pieper to declare South Carolina's mandatory minimum 30-year-jail term unconstitutional insofar as it applied to children. Also urging leniency for Christopher was his aunt, Melinda Pittman Rector, whose parents were the deceased victims.
She told the court that both her mother and father would be begging for mercy for Christopher if they were alive. Referring to the boy's state of mind at the time of the incident, she declared, "That was not my nephew that night. He's a good kid."
Pieper initially sounded sympathetic, labeling the case "tragic" for the entire family, and even adding that it "called attention to the very core values of this society about the treatment of juveniles and punishment."
Then, however, establishing that black robes do not bestow courage in the face of an angry society, Pieper claimed that he was bound by the law as written, and summarily sentenced Christopher to 30 years in jail.
If the law is unconstitutional, however, he certainly wasn't bound to follow it.
In fact, he was affirmatively bound not to follow it, a fact that Pieper knows full well. After sandbagging Christopher with an act of rank judicial cowardice, Pieper could manage nothing better than a mindless "Good luck to you."
The irony is that Christopher's already bad luck as a mentally ill child escalated the moment his case arrived in Pieper's courtroom.
A CASE FOR FAMILY COURT
If Pieper had really wanted to do justice in this case, he would have granted the defense's request that it be handled in the Family Court. In that forum, far from the glare of intense media scrutiny, Christopher and his family could have gotten the help they so desperately need without compromising the community's legitimate right to protection.
The proposition that juvenile courts are incapable of adequately protecting the public in cases of serious wrongdoing is an oft-repeated lie spread by politicians willing to sacrifice a kid's entire life for a fleeting bump in public opinion polls.
You may be surprised to know that, in many cases, kids appearing in juvenile courts can be confined for substantially longer periods of time than similarly charged adults in criminal courts. The trade-off is that kids found by juvenile courts to have broken the law are placed in facilities designed to rehabilitate rather than punish them
Generally, the initial term for which a child is placed by a juvenile court can be extended upon a showing that he needs additional treatment. Extensive reports from case workers, mental health officials and probation departments aid the court in reaching an appropriate decision.
Yes, juvenile courts can make mistakes, but so can adult courts.
In Christopher Pittman's case, they made a whopper, solidifying the boy's place right next to his grandparents as the third victim.
Children who break the law are treated more harshly today than at any other time in American history, including the Colonial era. That's a cold, hard fact. It's also a pretty lousy commentary on our character as a people.
The most depressing aspect, however, is the absence of any significant movement to reform the laws. Neither of the major political parties seem the least bit interested.
For the most part, Republicans were in the forefront of the campaign to try children as adults, and aren't about to undo what they've callously crafted into political capital. And for all their boasts about being the champions of the downtrodden, none of this could have happened without the acquiescence of the Democrats.
Christopher Pittman's eminently redeemable life has been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. What a damning indictment of our time on earth.
Monday, May 09, 2005
Justice for Juveniles is a grass-roots organization that is campaigning to change the barbaric manner in which this country treats children accused of serious crimes.
The group properly characterizes the prosecution of these youngsters in adult criminal courts and the imposition of lengthy prison terms in adult penitentiaries as state sanctioned child abuse.
It has taken up the cause of several children victimized by this grotesque handiwork of unprincipled politicians, cowardly judges, ambitious prosecutors and an apathetic public unwilling to demand an end to the insanity.
Justice for Juveniles has currently posted a petition to the South Carolina legislature on its website in support of "Christopher's Bill," a measure that would significantly reform the way in which accused children are treated in that state and serve as a prototype for similar reforms in other jurisdictions.
It is named for Christopher Pittman, who was convicted by a South Carolina jury in February of murdering his grandparents when he was 12 years of age and intoxicated on Zoloft, an anti-depressant prescribed for him after he had attempted suicide.
Judge Daniel Pieper, who had previously denied a defense motion to have the case heard in Family Court, where it clearly belonged, sentenced the young boy to 30 years in an adult jail.
Thereafter, Christopher's attorneys asked Pieper to reduce the sentence to a term that would expire when the boy becomes 21 years of age. In support of the motion, they cited language from Roper v. Simmons, the recent decision by the United States Supreme Court striking down the death penalty for those under the age of 18 when they commit their crimes.
In deciding that executing juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment's proscription against cruel and unusual punishment, the Supreme Court noted that juveniles lack the maturity of adults while offering a far better prospect for rehabilitation.
Christopher's attorneys argued persuasively that the same rationale militates against decimating children's lives by sentencing them to long terms in adult jails. Pieper, however, refused to stick his judicial neck out to blaze a new legal frontier on Christopher's behalf. Instead, he opted to preside over the ruination of a child's life with nary a whimper.
The case for using the language of the Roper decision to reduce Christopher's sentence is bolstered by the fact that society recognizes the practical impact of children's immaturity in numerous ways.
Among other restrictions, they can't vote, sit on juries, hold public office, consent to sexual relationships, or purchase alcohol or tobacco.
At the same time, they can be prosecuted for non-criminal conduct such as refusing to attend school, and disobeying their parents. Against these realities, the practice of prosecuting children as adults is blisteringly hypocritical.
It's a point I've made in previous columns and in discussions with people at seminars, public gatherings, and private meetings. Yet, I've never met a single person who has even attempted to reconcile the age-appropriate manner in which kids are treated generally with the naked meanness that has hijacked the juvenile justice system.
To me, this can only be explained by a general recognition among thinking people that this bizarre disparity in treatment is absolutely indefensible. Unfortunately, this doesn't translate into the public pressure necessary to get politicians to turn a deaf ear to the beer-belching yahoos and their simplistic law and order blabber.
"Christopher's Bill" contains a number of sensible reforms that would restore the integrity of the juvenile justice system without compromising the safety of the community. One of its key provisions would exempt any person under 14 years of age from mandatory sentencing laws and require that they be at least eligible for parole or release when they become 21 years old.
The proposal would also require law enforcement officials to advise children under the age of 14 of their constitutional rights in the presence of an attorney or guardian and permit questioning only when such adults are present. This provision recognizes the obvious -- yet routinely ignored -- reality that a child is no match for veteran police interrogators.
To provide relief for Christopher and others similarly situated, the bill would be retroactive for 10 years.
Getting South Carolina or any other state to reform its juvenile justice system is going to be extraordinarily difficult. While it is comforting that Justice for Juveniles and other like-minded organizations are waging the good fight, they could definitely use the help of some powerful politicians.
As of now, at least, the silence is both deafening and disgusting.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN
IT'S YOUR KID ARRESTED?