Drug intoxication defense breaks new South Carolina legal ground: Pittman /Zoloft trial
Sun, 13 Feb 2005
In South Carolina, temporary insanity does not influence punishment. If found guilty of murder – whether by reason of insanity or not, the sentence is 30 years to life with no parole.
Defense attorneys for Christopher Pittman, who was 12 years old when he committed the double murder of his grandparents, have argued that when he committed the crime he was under the influence of "involuntary intoxication" induced by the antidepressant, Zoloft. They have argued, and witnesses agreed, that his state of mind appears totally different today than at the time when he was taking Zoloft.
But after testimony concluded on Friday, Judge Danny Pieper noted: “There is no case in South Carolina that addresses involuntary intoxication by prescription drugs.” If found guilty but mentally ill, Christopher Pittman faces hospitalization and treatment (with psychotropic drugs) and incarceration for the rest of his life.
This case challenges the court with the reality that an FDA-approved drug prescribed by a physician, can have severe adverse effects such that it causes some people to become so agitated they lose control over their behavior, some become violent and /or suicidal.
Defense attorney, Andy Vickery, argued that since the defendant’s actions were not triggered by voluntarily consuming an illicit drug (or alcohol) but as a result of taking a prescribed drug – Zoloft – as instructed by a physician, the defendant (then 12 years old) should not be punished with life imprisonment or lifetime involuntary "treatment."
Judge Pieper appears to appreciate the legal consequences of a breach in the integrity of medicine: “It seems to turn the whole medical system on its side if you can’t rely on the medication your doctor prescribes.”
Even though adverse drug effects are supposed to be disclosed, the absence of enforcement mechanisms has led to the concealment of severe, even life-threatening adverse drug effects from prescribing physicians. The financial influence of the drug industry has turned medicine upside down – we can no longer trust doctors to know the effects of the medications they prescribe, we cannot trust the manufacturer to disclose the risks, and we cannot trust the FDA to warn about the risks.
Pfizer’s presence in the courtroom and the assistance given to the prosecution may be seen as an effort to influence the justice system as well.
Judge Pieper asked attorneys of both sides to help him formulate a compromise so that in his charge to the jury he can offer a possible alternative that might save the boy from lifetime incarceration, if the jury finds him guilty.
Contact: Vera Hassner Sharav
Drug intoxication defense breaks new SC legal ground
02:12 PM EST on Saturday, February 12, 2005
By BRUCE SMITH / Associated Press
CHARLESTON, S.C. The Christopher Pittman double murder trial has all the elements that have kept satellite trucks from national networks parked outside the courthouse in Charleston’s historic district for two weeks.
It’s a story of a 12-year-old who kills his grandparents, burns their house and drives off in their car. It’s also a story about a youth on the anti-depressant Zoloft and a question of whether he knew right from wrong at the time of the November 2001 slayings. But the case is also breaking new legal ground in South Carolina.
“There is no case in South Carolina that addresses involuntary intoxication by prescription drugs,” Circuit Court Judge Danny Pieper said after testimony concluded Friday and attorneys discussed the charge to the jury.
The jury of nine women and three men will get the case Monday following closing arguments and Pieper’s charge which will include instructions on involuntary intoxication.
The defense acknowledges Pittman, now 15, shot Joe Pittman, 66, and his wife Joy, 62, in their Chester County home but didn’t know right from wrong at the time because his mind was clouded by the anti-depressant.
The prosecution contends he was simply angry that his grandparents disciplined him and so shot them and then burned their house.
South Carolina has insanity defenses, which include additional options for a jury to find a defendant not guilty by reason of insanity as well as guilty but mentally ill.
But neither really fits this case, defense attorney Andy Vickery told the judge.
The defense has presented witnesses that Pittman was manic at the time of the slayings because of the Zoloft “The only evidence in this case of any mental defect is one that was drug-induced and which when away when the drug went away,” Vickery said.
“If you look at it from a policy standpoint, it would not make sense to have a guilty but mentally ill verdict,” Vickery added.
That could lead, he said, to people being locked up locked up or treated for mental illness “for simply taking their medicine.” There is little to go on in South Carolina law.
Vickery gave the example of someone slipping a drug into another’s drink who then commits a crime because they were involuntarily intoxicated.
In that case, he said, “it doesn’t make any sense to relegate you to treatment or the penitentiary for the rest of your life.”
“There is no law in this state on this subject,” the judge said. “It seems to turn the whole medical system on its side if you can’t rely on the medication your doctor prescribes.”
Pieper said the state law seems to require the choice of the insanity verdicts but would also include a charge so jurors would have to meet three tests for finding involuntary intoxication.
First, they would have to find the defendant did not know or have reason to know the drug had an intoxicating effect. Second, the defendant would have had to have taken the drug under the direction of a physician.
Third, the jury would have to then conclude that, as a result of the involuntary intoxication, the defendant didn’t know the difference between legal and moral right and wrong when the crime was committed.
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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