SSRI Prescription For Murder? Interrogation Methods Can Elicit Confessions From Innocent People

SSRI Prescription For Murder? CBS News 48 Hours / Interrogation Methods Can Elicit Confessions From Innocent People

Sat, 16 Apr 2005

CBS News is broadcasting the Christopher Pittman story–the 16 year old who was tried for murder as an adult for a crime he committed as a 12 year old boy while under the influence of the antidepressant, Zoloft.

Although there was no question about his having killed his grandparents, there are many disturbing issues that his trial raises about the justice system–in particular as it is applied in South Carolina.

First and foremost, the admission into evidence of Christorpher’s confessional statements when he was picked up–without the presence of a guardian or lawyer– Raises profound questions about the fairness of the trial whose prosecutor rested ihis entire case on what Christopher Pittman said during his interrogation when he had no adult to protect him.

In her column in The Wall Street Journal, yesterday, Sharon Begley writes about a body of evidence showing that confessions to murder can be elicited even from innocent people: “standard interrogation techniques are masterfully designed to leave people with almost no rational choice but to confess.”

She relates the story of a 14-year-old boy they arrested in the February murder of a man who found an intruder in his parked car in Rockford, Ill. As she notes, he “didn’t just confess. After the police took him from his home around midnight and isolated and interrogated him until dawn, he also re-enacted the crime for them, describing the inside of the car and relating how he had broken into it, struggled with the victim and shot him in the chest.

There was only one problem. After the boy had spent two weeks in detention, police, acting on a tip, discovered the real shooter was a 17-year-old. Scientists who study false confessions aren’t surprised.”

During the hours-long interrogations, in which “social-psychological weapons” –including isolation, confrontation, offering (false) incriminating evidence and implying the crime was justified –can elicit confessions can effectively undermine the defenses of an accused to admit to anything.

“Those most likely to confess to a crime they didn’t commit are compliant, suggestible, young, mentally retarded, mentally ill, or afraid of confrontation and conflict. These folks aren’t confessing to jaywalking. Of 125 proven false confessions from 1971 to 2002, 81% were for murder and 8% for rape.”

Contact: Vera Hassner Sharav
212-595-8974

Prescription For Murder?
April 15, 2005

Chris Pittman shot his grandparents, Joe and Joy Pittman, at close range and then set their house on fire. According to family members, Chris, a well-mannered and shy 12-year-old who lived with his grandparents, loved them more than anything.

So, why would Chris kill them?

Is the anti-depressant, Zoloft, which he was prescribed shortly before the murders, really to blame, as his lawyers claim? Correspondent Erin Moriarty has an exclusive interview with the now 16-year-old and reports for “Prescription for Murder?”, to be broadcast Saturday, April 16, at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

When Chester, S.C., sheriff’s officers arrived at the Pittmans’ destroyed home that November 2001 night, they learned young Chris was missing and so was his grandfather’s truck. As state investigators took over the scene, Chris was found 35 miles away, with the truck, and had told police a man broke into the house, killed Joe and Joy, and kidnapped him at gunpoint.

Chris’ story didn’t stand up and he soon confessed that he had killed his grandparents because “they deserved it.” At the time, Chris showed no remorse and no emotion. Prosecutor Barney Giese says it was a lifetime of mistreatment and neglect by other family members that caused Chris to kill after his grandfather disciplined him.

What defense could Chris possibly have? After all, he gave a complete confession to investigators who confronted him, providing step-by-step details of how he got a .410 shotgun, shot his grandparents as they slept, stole money and weapons and his grandfather’s truck before setting the house on fire, and then fled into the night.

As Chris’ family and lawyers searched for answers to solve what seemed to be a complete mystery, they came to an unexpected conclusion: that the sweet, shy, gentle boy they knew had somehow been turned into a stone-cold, calculating killer by the most popularly prescribed anti-depressant in the country — Zoloft.

The “Zoloft made him do it” defense might seem a long shot were it not for information coming from a series of hearings conducted by the Food and Drug Administration in Washington. That testimony, along with a newly released series of scientific studies, strongly indicates that for some children and adolescents, Zoloft can dramatically increase the risk of suicide.

But suicide is one thing and homicide another. Can Zoloft really be the reason that young Chris turned violent and became a killer?

Moriarty obtained the only television interview with Chris. He claims he killed only because of the medicine he was taking.

CHRIS PITTMAN: “You just can’t control yourself.”

ERIN MORIARTY: “Were you aware you were actually going to get the rifle and loading it?”

PITTMAN: “Unh-uh. It was just like you sitting there watching TV. I mean, everything that, you know, going on. It can’t be stopped. ”

MORIARTY: “Had you ever felt that kind of anger before?”

PITTMAN: “Unh-uh.”

MORIARTY: “What did it feel like?”

PITTMAN: “It’s just like it all just exploded. I mean, just exploded.”

MORIARTY: “Why do you think you did do that that night?”

PITTMAN: “Medicine. That’s the only…reason that I know. That’s the only reason — logical reason — that I could see why it happened. The littlest thing would set me off. I was like a bomb that was ready to blow up.”

Chris tells Moriarty his account of what it felt like right before he killed his grandparents.

PITTMAN: “I was just laying there trying to go to sleep and it was just like these voices in my head, just echoing in my head, getting louder and louder and faster.”

MORIARTY: “And what were these voices saying?”

PITTMAN: “Kill.”

MORIARTY: “Were you aware of what you had done?”

PITTMAN: “I thought it was all a dream.”

PITTMAN: “I finally got to the point after all this, got to the point where—that…I haven’t forgiven myself, but I kind of felt peace with myself. And…the trial comes and then it all comes back.”

Even though he was 12 years old at the time of the killings, Chris would be tried as an adult on two counts of murder, facing a possible life sentence.

Is Chris legally responsible for the brutal deaths of his grandparents? Or did Zoloft, designed to help Chris through a bout of depression, make him unfeeling, unthinking and temporarily insane?

THE WALLL STREET JOURNAL
SCIENCE JOURNAL
Sharon Begley

Interrogation Methods Can Elicit Confessions From Innocent People
April 15, 2005; Page B1

For cops, this was as good as it gets: The 14-year-old boy they arrested in the February murder of a man who found an intruder in his parked car in Rockford, Ill., didn’t just confess. After the police took him from his home around midnight and isolated and interrogated him until dawn, he also re-enacted the crime for them, describing the inside of the car and relating how he had broken into it, struggled with the victim and shot him in the chest.

There was only one problem. After the boy had spent two weeks in detention, police, acting on a tip, discovered the real shooter was a 17-year-old. Scientists who study false confessions aren’t surprised. During the hours-long interrogation, says Shelton Green, the boy’s public defender, detectives called the boy a liar, told him he would go to prison for 10 to 15 years if he didn’t admit his role, suggested he shot the man in self-defense and promised to help him if he would own up.

“This was almost a perfect storm of criminal injustice,” says Rockford prosecutor Paul Logli, president-elect of the National District Attorneys Association.

Suspects confess for a number of reasons. “But the most important,” says Saul M. Kassin, professor of psychology at Williams College, Williamstown, Mass., “is that standard interrogation techniques are masterfully designed to leave people with almost no rational choice but to confess.”

Typically, detectives isolate the suspect, heighten his stress and let him know that denial is futile. Crucially, says Prof. Kassin, they insist “we know you did it,” make him think he can go home if he confesses, and lead him to think the evidence against him is strong. “If he thinks this is what he’ll face at trial, a young suspect in particular may think it’s better to confess” and hope for leniency, says Prof. Kassin, who testifies for defendants “two or three times a year, in false-confession cases so egregious they break my heart.”

In a review of 50 years of studies, he and Gisli H. Gudjonsson of King’s College London analyze why an innocent person would confess to a heinous crime. Isolation, confrontation, offering (false) incriminating evidence and implying the crime was justified can elicit confessions from the guilty and are recommended in police manuals. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the use of manufactured evidence in interrogations.

“Interrogators are trained to suggest to suspects that their actions were spontaneous, accidental, provoked, peer-pressured, drug-induced or otherwise justifiable by external factors,” Profs. Kassin and Gudjonsson write in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

But what Prof. Kassin calls the “social-psychological weapons” of interrogators are so powerful they also can extract confessions from the innocent. Making the suspect anxious about his denials, challenging inconsistencies (a taste of what he would face at trial) and justifying the offense all induce confessions.

Those most likely to confess to a crime they didn’t commit are compliant, suggestible, young, mentally retarded, mentally ill, or afraid of confrontation and conflict.

These folks aren’t confessing to jaywalking. Of 125 proven false confessions from 1971 to 2002, 81% were for murder and 8% for rape. Although it is impossible to know how many confessions are false, of the first 130 exonerations that the New York-based Innocence Project obtained via DNA evidence, 35 involved people convicted after false confessions. People have confessed to murdering someone who is still alive, and to crimes committed when they were demonstrably somewhere else.

Some innocent people even come to believe they are guilty. In one infamous case, Michael Crowe, 14, was suspected in the 1998 stabbing death of his sister in Escondido, Calif. Through hours of questioning (with neither a lawyer nor parent present), he denied any involvement.

But after detectives told Michael (falsely) that his hair was found in his dead sister’s hand, that her blood was in his bedroom and that he had failed a polygraph, he came to believe he had a split personality and confessed. Last year, a drifter who was seen in the neighborhood on the night of the murder and had the girl’s blood on his clothing was convicted in the killing.

Police and prosecutors are starting to express concern about false confessions. “There are interrogation techniques that can lead to this,” says Mr. Logli, the Rockford prosecutor. Minnesota, Alaska, Illinois and Maine mandate videotaping interrogations so prosecutors and juries can judge whether cops used methods likely to elicit false confessions. A report from Canadian prosecutors notes “hundreds of cases where confessions have been proven false” and recommends that investigators and prosecutors receive training about “the existence, causes and psychology” of false confessions. Earlier this year, a Chicago firm that trains detectives offered a course about permissible “trickery and deceit during an interrogation.”

I have written in the past about the lack of a rigorous scientific foundation for fingerprints, eyewitness testimony, standard lineups and other forensic techniques. Add to that list the assumption that only the guilty confess.

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