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The McClatchy Co.

Local News Saturday, November 1, 2003

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Local Photo
Jim Stratakos / Herald file photo
Christopher Pittman sits in the Chester County Courtroom. Christopher, now 14, is charged with killing his grandparents two years ago.
Judge could send teen away for life

By Jason Cato The Herald
(Published October 27 2003)

Editor's Note: This is part two of a two-day series in which The Herald explores the events surrounding the deaths of a Chester County couple allegedly at the hands of their then 12-year-old grandson and issues involving juveniles in the adult criminal system.

CHESTER -- A judge may soon end a saga that began with the killing of a Chester County couple by their then 12-year-old grandson. Now a half-foot taller and two years older, Christopher Pittman's ordeal could come to an end after more than 600 days in the making.

No one has challenged whether he shot Joe Frank Pittman and Joy Roberts Pittman, as police have alleged, while they slept late Nov. 28, 2001. No one has publicly disputed allegations he then set their Slick Rock Road house on fire and fled to Cherokee County.

Questions revolve only around why he did it and whether he is criminally responsible.

Sixth Circuit Solicitor John Justice believes the cold-blooded acts deserve severe punishment. The boy's family believes a month-long regimen of antidepressant medication pushed him over the edge and that psychological help is needed, not decades in an adult prison.

All evidence will have been weighed, the witnesses and experts heard. The 12 jurors will have returned from deliberations and will again be seated in the Chester County Courthouse. Their verdict will be in the judge's hands.

If the jury decides Chris-topher is not guilty, the 14 year old will reconnect with his family after two years of separation. If they conclude he is guilty, the judge could issue one of the harshest sentences in modern U.S. history to a person his age at the time of the crime.

Christopher is charged with double murder and arson. He faces between 30 years and life in prison. He has been housed at a Department of Juvenile Justice center in Columbia since he was arrested Nov. 29, 2001.

The ultimate price

The solicitor offers no apologies for the sentence he wants -- life without parole. Justice feels that he's charged with protecting society. Only life behind bars can guarantee that, he said.

"To try him as a juvenile, at best, would put him back on the streets at 21," Justice said. "That's a risk I was not willing to take."

Some say with that went any chance for rehabilitation.

But there's a possibility the boy could get 30 years and be out of prison at age 42, a man raised by the prison system. Statistics show there's a good chance he'd be anything but a model citizen, some say.

That's a risk Justice is willing to take.

Believing the boy is a "teenage sociopath," Justice said the only remedy for the condition is time.

"As one gets older, they generally grow out of their mean streak," Justice said.

While there's always some risk he could regress and harm others, Justice said there's less chance of that at age 42 than 21.

"My goal is keeping him behind bars as long as possible," Justice said, adding the only way to do that was to get the boy waived up to adult court.

He accomplished that goal in June, when Family Court Judge Walter Brown Jr. agreed to have the boy tried in criminal court.

"Based on the evidence presented, it is the opinion of this Court that it is not likely the Defendant could be rehabilitated," Brown wrote in his order, offering the seriousness of the offenses, protecting the community and because the "alleged offenses are of a premeditated nature" as reasons for his decision.

When faced with similar choices regarding very young juveniles in recent years, other courts around the country have made similar decisions:

McKinley Moore in 1999 became the first Michigan child sentenced as an adult. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the shooting death of a 55-year-old barber when he was 12. He will stay in a juvenile treatment center until he is 19. Then a decision will be made whether to keep him incarcerated until he is 21 or send him to prison for life.

Nathaniel Brazill was convicted of second-degree murder for the May 2000 shooting death of his teacher in West Palm Beach, Fla., when he was 13. Brazill was tried as an adult and sentenced to 28 years in prison. An appeal was denied in May.

Lionel Tate was sentenced to life in prison without parole in Florida for killing a 6-year-old girl in 1999 using wrestling moves he'd seen on television. He was 12. Many believe he is the youngest person to ever receive such a sentence. A Florida appeals court is now considering whether Tate was too young for such a sentence. He's being held in a juvenile jail.

A Michigan court in 2001 denied an appeal of a life sentence for 13-year-old killer Martez Stewart, who stabbed a teenage neighbor 33 times. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and is now in a juvenile correction center. He will be eligible for parole in 2008.

Nathaniel Abraham in 1999 became the youngest person believed to have been tried and convicted of murder in the United States. He was convicted of second-degree murder for shooting a Pontiac, Mich., man in 1997, when he was 11. A first-degree murder conviction would have brought life in prison without parole.

The first person tried under a new Michigan law allowing juveniles to be charged and sentenced as adults, Abraham will not spend time in an adult prison. Judge Eugene Moore placed him in a boys training school in the juvenile justice system. He will be released when he turns 21.

"We can't continue to see incarceration in adult prison as a long-term solution," National Public Radio reported the judge said after sentencing. "The danger is that we won't take rehabilitation seriously if we know we can utilize prison in the future. To sentence juveniles to adult prison is ignoring the possibility that we are creating a more dangerous criminal by housing juveniles with hardened adults."

If convicted, Christopher Pittman, the Chester boy, likely would remain in the custody of DJJ until his 17th birthday. He would then be transferred to the adult prison system.

Adult crime, adult time

Gary Walker, a member of the National District Attorneys Association's Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee, agrees that juveniles should be tried as adults under certain circumstances. He is not familiar with the Chester County case but does know Justice.

"It's always decided on a case-by-case basis," said the Marquette County, Mich., prosecutor. "We don't just look at the crime or just the age. The more serious the crime is, the more you probably look to waive. First and foremost, we look to protect society."

A standard approach adopted by the district attorneys association considers a number of factors, Walker said, including the defendant's background, psychological assessments and the offense.

"I haven't met anyone yet who enjoys trying juveniles as adults," Walker said. "Not only do I not get pleasure out of it, it troubles me. It's a waste of a life."

Increasingly, however, it's what prosecutors are choosing.

A 2000 Bureau of Justice Statistics report showed the number of juveniles in adult prisons more than doubled between 1985 and 1997, the latest year data is available, from 3,400 to 7,400.

Those who oppose trying children as adults often say the person seen as a juvenile is not always the person they become as an adult. Walker agrees.

"Very frankly, the person you see at 18 isn't the person you see at age 25," Walker said.

He added, however, that the best indicator for future behavior is past behavior. "And that's true at 14, 24, 34 or 44."

Protecting society?

Some question how much risk should be taken with a child's life, convicted killer or not. Others question whether society is really protected by putting juveniles in adult prisons or placed at greater risk once they get out.

A Florida study conducted in the 1990s showed juveniles sentenced to and released from adult prisons are more likely to reoffend, to reoffend earlier, to commit more subsequent offenses and to commit more serious, subsequent offenses than those treated in the juvenile system.

The American Civil Liberties Union reports putting children in adult prisons also places them in danger. According to the ACLU, juveniles sentenced to adult prisons instead of juvenile jails are:

Five times more likely to be sexually assaulted;

Twice as likely to be beaten by staff members; and

50 percent more likely to be attacked with a weapon.

Problems arise when children are treated like adults in the criminal justice system, said Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project, a national nonprofit organization on criminal justice policies. Historically, the adult system has been about punishment and locking people away, he said, whereas the juvenile system is designed for rehabilitation.

"To say you need to protect society, I don't think that means we have to give up on 12-year-olds," Mauer said. "Society doesn't normally believe people are completely beyond change, especially at that age."

The drug war

Family members and friends close to Christopher say that change has already begun -- especially in light of extensive therapy he's received in the DJJ center, but more importantly because he's been taken off prescription antidepressants.

His family -- including his father Joe D. Pittman and maternal grandmother Del Duprey, both of Florida -- believes antidepressant medication triggered a behavioral change in the boy that led him to kill.

After running away from his Oxford, Fla., home in October 2001, Christopher told police his father had beat him. Authorities determined the allegations weren't true, but placed the boy in a treatment center for a few days after he threatened to harm himself. There he was diagnosed as being clinically depressed and prescribed Paxil.

He came to live with his grandparents in Chester later that month. He was taken to a family doctor there who switched his medication to Zoloft.

Both Paxil and Zoloft are classified as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. The entire category is being reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration after clinical studies surfaced showing depressed children treated with these drugs may experience increased desires to harm themselves.

The British government has banned certain SSRIs, including Paxil, from use with children.

The U.S. government has not taken similar measures, though the FDA reminded doctors in June the drugs are not approved to treat depressed children.

After being detained in Columbia, Christopher was cited for numerous behavioral problems, a state psychologist reported. That's because DJJ officials once again put him on Paxil, his father said.

A DJJ doctor called Joe D. Pittman in Florida and said his son was under a bed telling people to leave him alone and stay away. He'd been getting into fights and had cut marks.

After successfully pleading with doctors to stop giving Christopher antidepressants, Joe D. Pittman said his son's behavior, attitude and grades improved. In fact, he was the only person on his wing to make the spring honor roll.

The nonprofit group Inter-national Coalition for Drug Awareness is pushing for Congressional hearings into potential hazards of children using antidepressants.

The FDA is scheduled to hold an advisory meeting Feb. 2. The coalition will attend and present the Pittman case as a Zoloft example, said Lisa Van Syckel, the group's New Jersey coordinator. The boy's family also plans to attend the meetings in Bethesda, Md.

"I'm furious. The United Kingdom has taken safeguards to protect British children. Those same safeguards should be in place for American children," Van Syckel said. "Parents of those who are not taking the medication need to be concerned, too, not just those of the children on the medication."

The coalition isn't alone in advocating that point.

Support from Columbine

Mark Taylor, one of the first people shot during the Col-umbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo., travels the country warning others of the dangers sometimes created by juveniles on antidepressants.

Taylor, now 20, sued drug maker Solvay Pharmaceuti-cals. He claims Eric Harris, one of the students who went on the rampage that left 12 other students and a teacher dead, "reported he was having psychotic reactions to the drug," Taylor said. Harris was on Luvox, also an SSRI. He had previously been on Zoloft.

In 2002, Taylor traveled to all 50 states during an eight-month tour and saw people affected by problems with prescription antidepressants "with his own eyes."

"I'm not talking one or two, or 10 or 20," said Taylor, who was featured in "Bowling for Columbine," Michael Moore's Academy Award-winning documentary. "We've seen literally thousands of people whose lives have been destroyed by these drugs. ... When people take these drugs, they don't just hurt themselves. They're going on killing sprees."

Taylor said drug company officials gave him a copy of a file showing what Harris' life was like, down to the things he ate.

Cheese, for example, can cause bad reactions in some patients taking antidepressants, Taylor said. Harris ate a lot of pizza.

"So it wasn't like we just pointed fingers at the antidepressants. We looked at it and studied it," Taylor said. "I wish I could just forget about it and let the drug companies go on, but I can't. There are too many cases and too many families that have been devastated by these drugs."

Juries regarding drugs

GlaxoSmithKline, the British manufacturer of Paxil, settled an appeal in 2001 after a Wyoming jury found the drug played a role in a 1998 murder/suicide.

A federal civil suit was filed against Glaxo after Donald Schell killed his wife, daughter and granddaughter and then himself in February 1998. Two days before the killings, the 60-year-old man began taking Paxil.

The family claimed the drug caused Schell's actions. The jury agreed, placing 80 percent of the blame on the drug maker and awarding the family $8 million.

Other cases haven't ended as fortunately for the accused.

In September, a Virginia woman claiming Paxil caused her to stomp her 82-year-old mother to death was convicted of second-degree murder. The 49-year-old could be sentenced up to 40 years in prison at a hearing on Nov. 24.

The Associated Press reported the woman's lawyers argued her judgment and self-control were affected by the medication and claimed she was not criminally responsible for her mother's death. There was no jury in the case, but the judge disagreed.

Andy Vickery, a Houston attorney specializing in suits against pharmaceutical companies, won the Wyoming wrongful death suit. It was the first civil challenge a SSRI maker lost in court.

"There's a 'small, vulnerable subpopulation' who are susceptible to violence from SSRI drugs," Vickery said. "It's there, it's real and the drug companies have known about it for a decade or more."

Vickery, however, doesn't believe the drugs should be banned. Most people who take them are undoubtedly helped, he said. But he believes the drugs can be harmful to a select few -- as many as 5 percent.

While those patients may experience side effects that can lead to violent behavior, not all act on those tendencies, he said. Many stop taking the drugs. Of those who don't, a few commit "horribly out-of-character, horribly violent acts," Vickery said.

Though he's spent 25 years as a trial attorney, the last eight have heavily dealt with suits against drug companies. In that time, Vickery said he's only ever considered two criminal cases involving antidepressants. The Pittman case was one of those.

In the end, though, it comes down to having enough money to mount a proper defense, Vickery said.

Cases involving antidepressants often offer "involuntary intoxication" as a defense, he said.

Unlike voluntary intoxication, which involves illicit drugs like cocaine or LSD, involuntary intoxication is reserved for prescription drugs that can mimic illegal ones in some people, he said.

"You have a drug that in some respects is very similar to LSD and cocaine, but it comes in a pill your doctor prescribes and the pharmacy fills," Vickery said of SSRIs.

To convince a jury of that, however, often requires costly experts, Vickery said.

"The Pittman case desperately needs a defense that has enough money to hire experts not only with the expertise, but the flat-out courage to say it," he said.

In the absence of such experts and defense budgets, cases such as this often end up getting settled without going to trial, Vickery said. That's particularly true in civil cases, he said, where only three out of hundreds of suits have ever gone before a jury. The same holds true for criminal cases, Vickery said.

Joe D. Pittman has said repeatedly that he wished he had the money to hire such experts and seasoned attorneys to help his son. But he doesn't. That doesn't mean he's given up hope, however, or his belief that his son's medication led to the deaths of his parents.

"There should definitely be reasonable doubt," Joe D. Pittman said. "Yes, he committed the crime. But was he in his own right mind? No."

That's a point he hopes will have resonated within the minds of jurors while deliberating to help decide Chris-topher's fate.

The group of 12 could soon be seated in the jury box. Father will again be seated behind son.

The judge will finally ask the boy to rise. He'll then look down and read the verdict.

Guilty or not?

Contact Jason Cato at 329-4071 or


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