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Drug led to murder: judge

May 25, 2001

IT is the most commonly used antidepressant in Australia and was yesterday blamed for causing one man to kill his wife of 50 years.

"I am satisfied that but for the Zoloft he had taken, he would not have strangled his wife," NSW Supreme Court Justice Barry O'Keefe said, ordering the release of confessed killer David John Hawkins, 76, on July 31.

Hawkins, who has since recovered from depression, was sentenced to three years' jail with a two-year non-parole period, but he has already served nearly two years on remand.

The case was "a tragic reminder to medical practitioners and the community of the possible serious even dangerous side effects that can be produced by Zoloft", Justice O'Keefe said in his judgment.

Hawkins confessed to strangling his wife Margaret, 70, at their hobby farm near Tumbarumba, in southern NSW, on August 1, 1999.

The retired mechanic, who suffered from depression, had taken five 50 milligram tablets of Zoloft a medication similar to Prozac during the night of July 31 because he was unable to sleep. The amount was five times the dose prescribed for him by his doctor.

About 7am, he had got out of bed to get wood for the fire, but suddenly found himself with his hands around his wife's neck.

"I just went absolutely berserk. I can remember shouting and screaming . . . I have never done it before," he told the court.

The case could spark a rush of defendants trying to dodge murder charges on the grounds they were using antidepressants, barrister Stephen Odgers SC, a criminal law specialist, said last night.

"While it's possible that there will be a number of defendants who try to rely on this kind of defence in the future, it cannot be assumed the prosecutors or judges or juries will naively accept such a defence," he said.

Pfizer, the manufacturers of Zoloft, said yesterday Justice O'Keefe's comments about its drug were "extraordinary".

"We have a myriad of information available, but that was simply not presented in this case," Pfizer medical director Bill Ketelbey said. "There was evidence presented (for the) defence, but there was never the opportunity for contrary evidence to be presented . . . we feel it is very, very unfair that Zoloft has been labelled as it has been."

Psychiatric experts told the court Zoloft had been linked with 29 cases of aggression and 40 cases of manic reaction in patients.

David Healy of the University of Wales gave evidence that Zoloft can cause a rise in suicidal or homicidal feelings.

But psychiatrists and depression experts defended the drug yesterday.

Professor of psychiatry at the University of NSW, Philip Mitchell, said the case was a very uncommon event. "The community should not be afraid of these medications," he said.

Hawkins will live with his daughter in Wagga Wagga when he is released.

Your feedback:
Justice O'Keefe has put the spotlight on the after affects of Zoloft, and possibly other anti-depressants. Doctors are relying too heavily on "wonderdrugs" and the pharmaceutical industry. Companies like Pfizer are coercing Doctors to use their products by incentive based marketing. The person that suffers is the patient because they are not made aware of the alternatives available to them other than drug regimes. The pharmaceutical industry has its own interests at heart driven by multimillion dollar profits. David Hawkins will forever bear the scars of Zoloft's after affects, and so will others.
John Stacey


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