Successful `Prozac Defense' Is Thought to Be The First

Jeff Swiatek , The Indianapolis Star
March 01, 2000

Mar. 1--An insurance agent who robbed a bank was acquitted by a Connecticut judge last week on the unusual grounds that the robber's judgment was impaired by Prozac and the tranquilizer Xanax.

      The ruling, which has drawn national attention in the media, is apparently the first time the "Prozac defense" has aided in a criminal acquittal.

      Prozac's maker, Indianapolis drug company Eli Lilly and Co., said in all previous 77 cases it knows about in which the "Prozac defense" has been used by criminal defendants, the argument has failed to win an acquittal.

      "The judge's ruling in this case is at odds with previous attempts by criminal defendants to use the so-called Prozac defense," Lilly spokeswoman Laura Miller said Tuesday.

      Superior Court Judge Richard Arnold ruled that the 28-year-old agent, Christopher DeAngelo, "was unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or to control his conduct" when he robbed a bank in Derby, Conn., in December 1997.

      The judge cited the opinions of three psychiatrists who evaluated DeAngelo and found that his sanity was affected by the antidepressant Prozac and Xanax. He was prescribed the drugs to treat a manic condition.

      DeAngelo had a "squeaky clean" record before he started taking Prozac and Xanax, defense attorney John Williams told the Hartford Courant newspaper.

      DeAngelo was prescribed the two drugs by his doctor in July 1997 and went on a robbery spree of a department store, a gas station and two banks the following November and December.

      He was arrested by police, following a brief car chase, after robbing the Derby bank of $54,000 with a pellet gun.

      Last week's non-jury ruling concerned only the Derby bank robbery. Charges are on hold in the other robberies.

      Under Connecticut law, DeAngelo now will be evaluated by state psychiatrists and, if deemed a danger to society, could be kept in custody for up to 20 years, which would have been his maximum prison sentence for the Derby robbery, said Assistant State's Attorney Kevin Doyle, who prosecuted the case.

      "The judge has been catching a lot of bad ink over this," said Doyle, who added that "I think the judge made the right decision based on the facts of this case."

      Doyle said he's received several media calls about the case, including from a national TV news show.

      Doyle said the case shouldn't be portrayed as "a Prozac defense."

      "It's someone who was over-medicated, who had a history of bipolar disorder," he said.

      One of the psychiatrists who analyzed DeAngelo was Dr. Peter Breggin, the author of Talking Back to Prozac, a critical 1994 book about Prozac.

      Breggin told the court that Prozac and Xantax can cause "out-of-character, irrational, senseless, impulsive, bizarre and destructive behavior."

      A Harvard Medical School psychiatrist who examined DeAngelo for the state, Dr. Carl Salzman, reported that the development of a manic syndrome, in which judgment is impaired, is "highly consistent with giving 40 or 60 mg. of Prozac to a person with a strong family history of bipolar disorder."

      Lilly's Miller said DeAngelo "carefully planned his actions" in the robberies. She added: "There's a great weight of medical literature that rejects the notion that Prozac can cause violent or criminal behavior."



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This news story is not produced by the American Psychological Association and does not necessarily represent the opinions of the association.