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Prozac is defense in killings at bar

Southgate resident on trial over deaths in 2002

January 23, 2004

BY SUZETTE HACKNEY
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

The Prozac made him do it.

A FATAL NIGHT IN 2002
No one is disputing that Christopher Bernaiche was playing pool for $20 a game at the Drinks Saloon Bar in Gibraltar on Dec. 27, 2002.

Police and prosecutors say Bernaiche lost his temper when the man he was playing against sank the ball he called and a second ball he hadn't. A fight ensued, and Bernaiche, 27, was escorted out of the bar. He fought with bouncers in the alley.

He said: "I'll take you all on one-on-one . . . I'll be back," according to Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Robert Stevens.

About a half-hour later, Bernaiche returned to the bar with a gun and began shooting, changing a clip on his .40-caliber weapon at least once.

Killed were Charles Stull, 35, of Gibraltar and Douglas Kruszewski, 33, of Rockwood. Three other men were wounded: Steven Purdy, 25, of South Rockwood, Curtis Marcinkowski, 33, of Rockwood and Kristian Peters, 34, of New Boston.

By Suzette Hackney

PROZAC SIDE EFFECTS
According to the information provided by Prozac manufacturer Eli Lilly and Co., the most common side effects associated with the use of the antidepressant drug are nausea, difficulty sleeping, drowsiness, anxiety, nervousness, weakness, loss of appetite, tremors, dry mouth, sweating, decreased sex drive, impotence and yawning. These tend to to be mild and usually go away within a few weeks of starting treatment.

However, some medical journals and health professionals also have documented less-common side effects, including erratic heartbeat, rash, swelling of the skin, irritability, mania, difficulty breathing, violent behavior and depression.

That's how Christopher Bernaiche's attorneys explain why the 27-year-old Southgate resident lost at a pool game, got into a fight and then returned to a Gibraltar bar with a gun Dec. 27, 2002. Police say he shot up the place -- firing at least 20 bullets -- killing two men and injuring three others.

In one of the state's first cases where Prozac-induced rage is being used as the primary defense in a homicide case, the legal community is keeping an eye on Wayne County Circuit Court.

Bernaiche is being defended, in part, by Andy Vickery, a Houston lawyer who has successfully sued the makers of Prozac, Eli Lilly and Co., saying the drug has side effects that can cause suicide, anger and violent behavior.

"Maybe he is opening the door for something new here," said Marshall Tauber, president of the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan, referring to Vickery. "This defense hasn't been used very often in Michigan. Nationally, there are a few cases here and there. It's mostly been unsuccessful."

Bernaiche is charged with two counts of first-degree murder, three counts of assault with intent to murder and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime. If convicted, he would face life in prison with no chance of parole. His trial is expected to last at least two weeks.

On Thursday, during opening statements, Vickery said Bernaiche was mentally ill at the time of the shooting. That mental illness, which he called substance-induced mood disorder, caused Bernaiche to react violently and to ultimately kill.

"This is a case about drug-induced violence," Vickery said. "His doctor said, 'Take these pills; they'll make make you feel better.' He had no clue what kind of chemical time bomb was ticking away in his body."

Prozac and other drugs are in a class known as selective seratonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. Prozac is the most widely used of these drugs. The group also includes the brand names Paxil, Zoloft and Luvox.

The drugs generally work by shoring up the brain's level of seratonin, a beneficial neurotransmitter, by preventing the body from prematurely siphoning it out of the central nervous system.

Eli Lilly has faced more than 300 lawsuits over Prozac's alleged side effects, but has maintained the drug's safety as well-documented.

But Vickery said Bernaiche's dosage of Prozac had been doubled two months before the shooting. He said Bernaiche intended on killing that night -- but he wanted to kill himself. Vickery said Bernaiche talked to his mother and brother from his cell phone, saying his good-byes.

"He said, 'I love you. It's all over. I'm going to take my own life.' " Three days after the shooting, Vickery said Bernaiche tried to commit suicide.

David Moran, an assistant law professor at Wayne State University, said a Prozac defense is difficult to prove because a lawyer has to show that not only was a defendant involuntarily intoxicated by the drug, but that the intoxication rendered him incapable of controlling his impulses, and that he could not distinguish right from wrong.

"It's a tough row to hoe," Moran said. "All forms of all mental defenses tend not to work very often."

George Ward, a former Wayne County assistant chief prosecutor, said the trial will become a battle of the experts. And the prosecution will work to prove that Bernaiche had time to consider his actions and knew right from wrong because he fled from the bar and threw the weapon under a car.

Contact SUZETTE HACKNEY at 313-223-4536 or hackney@freepress.com.


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