Every week, Janet Sisk rises as early as 5 a.m. to spend her Sundays with an S.C. teenager who brutally murdered his grandparents in their sleep.
She made the trek from her home in Charlotte to spend Christmas Eve with Christopher Pittman, and planned to spend part of this Easter weekend sitting across a table from the teen at his maximum security prison in Columbia.
To Sisk, director of the Juvenile Justice Foundation, Pittman has become more than a cause that attracted worldwide attention when he blamed the 2001 slayings on an antidepressant he was taking. She now thinks of him as her third son.
A half dozen people drawn to Pittman's case visit him weekly. Another woman has flown from Michigan to see him twice in the past year. Hundreds of others rally around him in other ways, including vowing to pay for college when he gets out of prison.
"He's shy and he's quiet and he's polite," Sisk said recently.
Pittman was 12 when he used a pump-action shotgun to shoot his grandparents Joe and Joy Pittman, and then set fire to their Chester County, S.C., home. During his trial four years later, Pittman's attorneys unsuccessfully argued the slayings were influenced by the antidepressant Zoloft. A judge sentenced him to 30 years in prison.
Now 6 foot 2 and sporting budding facial hair, Pittman will turn 18 on Monday in an adult prison where he was moved six months ago from a juvenile facility.
Supporters hope an appeal of the case to the state Supreme Court takes hold. In October, dozens of supporters and relatives gathered in Columbia as defense attorney Andy Vickery argued that his client's confession was influenced by Zoloft and his youth.
"I've got my fingers crossed, and I'm hoping," said Joe Pittman, Christopher Pittman's father, who has traveled from Florida several times to visit the son who killed his own parents.
Christopher Pittman's mother has not been part of his life for years.
Through his office, prosecutor Barney Giese declined to comment on the case because the appeal is pending. During the trial, he described how Pittman shot his grandfather in the mouth and his grandmother in the head and then told police they "deserved it."
Pittman supporters recently asked lawmakers to pass a measure requiring authorities increase protections for juveniles taken into police custody in South Carolina. The measure does not appear to be gaining traction.
While he waits on the appeal that lawyers say could come at any time, Pittman has a job on the prison maintenance crew. His supporters say he spends his time staying busy with that work, and with staying safe, in between their visits.
"I believe his grandparents would want us to give our love and compassion to their grandson and to fight for his freedom," Sisk said.