Pittman ruling upheld

Attorneys vow to keep fighting despite S.C. Supreme Court's decision

By Matt Garfield The Herald
Published 06/12/07 - 12:00 AM |

 

COLUMBIA -- The S.C. Supreme Court has upheld the murder conviction of Christopher Pittman, the Chester County teenager who claimed antidepressants led him to kill his grandparents and set their house on fire when he was 12.

The court ruled Monday against several arguments made by Pittman's attorneys, including the contention that he was denied a speedy trial before he was sentenced to 30 years in prison in February 2005. He was 15 at the time of his sentencing.

Three years earlier, he shot his grandparents, Joe and Joy Pittman, with a pump-action shotgun as they slept, then set fire to their home in Chester County.

His attorneys argued unsuccessfully that he had been involuntarily intoxicated by the antidepressant Zoloft at the time of the shooting and didn't know right from wrong. In appealing, his attorneys said the trial judge should have used a different standard for jurors to determine involuntary intoxication.

"We had very high hopes," said Del Duprey, Pittman's maternal grandmother who lives in Wildwood, Fla. "We feel like once more, South Carolina has let him down. We felt we really had some excellent points."

Duprey said the family would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which would need to decide to hear the case. Paul Waldner, one of Pittman's attorneys, also said the legal fight will press on.

"Obviously, the decision is a setback for us, but our resolve to continue to try to obtain justice for this boy who committed the only violent act of his life only days after he was given a mind-altering drug is strong," Waldner said.

Pittman began taking antidepressants after he attempted to hurt himself with a knife and run away from home while living in Florida, according to court documents.

He continued taking the antidepressant after moving in with his grandparents in Chester County, where he was later accused of trying to choke a second-grader, court documents state. On the night of the murders, he had been disciplined by his grandfather for misbehaving at choir practice, according to the documents.

Prosecutor Barney Giese could not be reached Monday.

Pittman called his grandmother on Monday morning after the ruling came out. The two spoke for about 10 minutes.

"He let me know that he was doing OK," Duprey said. "He sounded very good. I think he had not allowed himself to be confident there would be any change."

The case generated outrage that Pittman was held so long before his trial. In October, dozens of supporters and relatives gathered in Columbia as defense attorney Andy Vickery argued before the state Supreme Court that his client's confession was influenced by Zoloft and his youth.

Pfizer Inc., the manufacturer of Zoloft, has said the drug "didn't cause his problems, nor did the medication drive him to commit murder."

Zoloft is the most widely prescribed antidepressant in the country.

Even before Monday's ruling, Pittman and his lawyers faced long odds, says Yale Zamore, the Chester County public defender who was Pittman's lawyer until 2004.

"This is the sort of thing I was afraid would happen right from the beginning," Zamore said. "I describe this as a high-wire act with no net. Once you're knocked over, the game is over."

Pittman's life in prison

Still, Pittman's supporters say they will forge ahead. Some plan to go to Washington, D.C., this month to attend FDA hearings on antidepressants.

"We're thinking he just tried to put a good spin on it," said Mike Maloney of Rock Hill, a technical illustrator who closely follows the case and talked to Pittman on Monday. "He claims it's kind of what he expected. But of course, he has more time to dwell on these things than we do."

Pittman, now 6-foot-2, turned 18 in April. Friends and family visit him at prison in Columbia to talk, play cards and share snacks. The visits are limited to four hours.

Pittman particularly enjoys hearing about his older sister, Danielle, who has a baby girl and is expecting a second child in November. Mostly, he reminisces about his days before prison.

"We've been doing this for close to six years now," his grandmother said.