The pill that killed David Hawkins ...
"I have killed my wife ... I got tablets from the doctor yesterday
and I think they were too strong." Photo: Brendan Esposito
Manufacturers Pfizer find it
"extraordinary" but the anti-depressant drug Zoloft stands accused
of murder. Deborah Cameron and Allison Jackson report.
A tiny, pale, bullet-shaped pill symbolically in the dock
alongside a confessed strangler, has been named by a Supreme Court
judge as the dark force in "a terrible act" of murder.
The anti-depressant drug Zoloft is central to the story of why
David Hawkins, 76, snapped and strangled his 70-year-old wife.
Nothing conveys the devastation of Hawkins so thoroughly as the
chilling tape that was played in court of his call to the police
"I have killed my wife ... I got tablets from the doctor
yesterday and I think they were too strong. I went, I went
absolutely wild. I don't know. I was mad. I can't say any more ... I
have got to go. I am heading out and I am going to get rid of
myself. Nobody, nobody can help me now. Nobody can help me now. Look
I've got to go. I'm shaking here. I can't wait. I can't stop."
Hawkins was not alone in his depression. According to national
figures, one in 15 adult and adolescent Australians has clinical
depression. Most commonly this major illness is treated with tablets
- 8.2 million prescriptions were written in 1998, mainly for Zoloft,
Prozac, Aropax, Dothep and Endep.
What is mysterious is the scale and severity of bad reactions.
The Supreme Court quotes evidence from the Department of Health
and Aged Care of 510 Australian patients on Zoloft who reacted
badly, but the picture is very sketchy. The department will not
release comparative figures for other similar drugs and admits that
reporting is not mandatory anyway.
The world's leading expert critic of Zoloft, Dr David Healy, of
the University of Wales College of Medicine, claims the 510 figure
is undoubtedly wrong and that between 5,100 and 51,000 would be more
realistic. The truth, he says, can never be known because patients
keep their feelings to themselves, fearing what will happen if they
reveal murderous thoughts. "Imagine that you are taking Zoloft and
you start to have feelings that you want to murder your children,"
Healy said from Canada yesterday.
" How can you speak about it if you think that you might get
Healy is a leading voice in the world debate about Zoloft which,
like Prozac, is a serotonin re-uptake inhibitor. Both the drugs have
been implicated in tragic crimes and suicides, mainly in the United
States. Among them are cases involving a 13-year-old boy who hanged
himself, a successful businessman who committed suicide and a proud
grandfather who killed his only granddaughter, his daughter, his
wife and himself - all, according to Healy, under the influence of
Zoloft and drugs like it.
Healy provided an opinion to the Supreme Court in the Hawkins
case saying the drug produced a "strange and unusual state of mind"
in Hawkins that directly led to the murder.
"In my opinion had he not been taking Zoloft the events of that
night would not have happened," Healy wrote in the opinion that was
tabled in court.
He is not surprised by the stance taken by the manufacturer of
Zoloft, Pfizer, which has stoutly defended the drug and called the
Supreme Court finding "extraordinary". The response of Pfizer's
Australian branch is consistent with the international corporate
position of all the major drug companies, which is to deny that the
drug is culpable.
Healy says there is fierce opposition to his views and believes
his opponents are behind a recent decision by the University of
Toronto to stop him from taking up a post there.
Dr Bill Lyndon, the chairman of the committee for psychotropic
drugs and other physical treatments of the Royal Australian and New
Zealand Collection of Psychiatrists, said Pfizer needed to be frank
"The profession would expect a company in this situation to make
available any data they had on the drug," he said.
While he did not suggest that Pfizer was hiding evidence, he said
doctors needed to be clear about anything that might adversely
Lyndon said he was worried that the Supreme Court decision might
cause panic in patients who were taking Zoloft or other
anti-depressants and he warned them against stopping their
medication without first seeing their doctor.
The NSW Health Complaints Commission has recorded two episodes of
patients criticising general practitioners who prescribed Zoloft.
One involved a woman who saw her GP for pre-menstrual tension and
was prescribed the drug, which made her suicidal.
Commissioner Amanda Adrian said the drug should not be prescribed
lightly and that pharmaceutical companies needed to do more to
She said the lack of proper statistics on adverse reactions was a
grave concern to many close followers of the issue, including health
lobbyists who wanted to be able to report experiences more directly
rather than relying on doctors.
"The obligation of the pharmaceutical companies is probably
higher because it is dealing with a therapy for a vulnerable group
of humanity," Adrian said.
A New Zealand psychologist, who asked not to be named for fear of
repercussions from the drug industry, said he was "sickened" by the
failure of Pfizer to apologise to the family of Hawkins or promise
to review the safety of Zoloft.
He said it was hypocrital of Pfizer to suggest Justice O'Keefe
reached his conclusion that Zoloft had caused Hawkins to kill his
wife after hearing only half the evidence.
"For a drug company to blame this judgment on one-side
information is pathetically ironic. Delegates at [the Royal
Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists] congress [in
Canberra] were continually bombarded with genuinely one-side
marketing tactics all designed to do one thing: increase our
prescribing of their product regardless of the side effects."
O'Keefe's findings read as the strongest possible indictment of
its role in the crime.
The murder, he said, was "a tragic reminder" about the dangerous
side-effects of Zoloft.
Hawkins, a retired mechanic who lived with his wife, Margaret, on
their hobby farm near Tumbarumba, in southern NSW, had suffered
depression on and off since the 1970s. He first took Zoloft in 1996
after the death of his youngest daughter, Christina, from breast
cancer, and then in 1999 when he became depressed over the sale of
Despite the doctor's orders not to take the drug until breakfast
the next morning, Hawkins took one tablet at 2am on August 1, and
when he didn't feel any better, he took four more.
At 7.30am, as his wife prepared to light the fire, Hawkins "went
absolutely berserk ' and strangled her with his hands.
O'Keefe said the killing was totally out of character for
Hawkins, who had been in a loving relationship with his wife for
almost 50 years.
"I am satisfied that but for the Zoloft he had taken he would not
have strangled his wife," O'Keefe said.
He ascribed no blame to the general practitioner, whose notes, he
said, were significant and who wondered whether Hawkins may have
Hawkins received a two-year minimum prison sentence but because
of time already served in remand he will be free in nine weeks.