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The McClatchy Co.

Local News Wednesday, June 9, 2004

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Jim Stratakos The Herald
Joe D. Pittman hugs his son Christopher during a hearing Tuesday for Christopher Pittman's double murder trial in Chester. Henry Mims, co-council for the defense, is in the background.
Judge OKs Pittman attorneys
Lawyers considered experts in antidepressant cases

By Jason Cato The Herald
(Published June 2 2004)

CHESTER -- A Chester County judge on Tuesday approved the addition of two expert attorneys for Christopher Pittman's defense team.

However, Circuit Judge Paul Short again refused to postpone the boy's double murder trial for a week, meaning one of those attorneys -- Andy Vickery of Houston -- most likely will not be available to help when the trial begins June 14. Karen Barth Menzies, a Los Angeles-based attorney who specializes in antidepressant cases, also was added to the defense team on Tuesday.

Short's refusal didn't stop Vickery from beginning to lay the groundwork for using drug company internal memos and documents to help prove that an adverse reaction to an antidepressant caused Pittman, now 15, to kill his grandparents in November 2001. The defense says the drug was Zoloft, made by Pfizer.

Vickery claimed Pfizer "injected" itself into the Pittman case in January 2002 when one of its lawyers provided information to one of the prosecution's key medical experts. By doing so, Vickery said the defense is not only entitled to all materials provided to the prosecution, but to many other company documents.

Vickery and Menzies say confidential Pfizer documents they've seen in civil cases prove the drug company has been aware of potential problems with Zoloft for years. Those documents, however, have been sealed by a civil court judge.

Besides a list of those memos and documents, Vickery also wanted to know whether 6th Circuit Solicitor John Justice was provided a copy of the "Zoloft Prosecutor's Manual," which he said is created by Pfizer to help prosecutors in cases involving the drug.

Justice said he has no such manual, but said Pfizer representatives contacted him last fall and have given him copies of public documents, papers from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a tape of the February FDA hearing on antidepressants and children, Zoloft package inserts and testimony transcripts of one of the defense's key medical experts, Dr. Peter Breggin.

"I've been given advice on how to cross Breggin ... and have been schooled on how these drugs are supposed to work," Justice said.

He also said he had "some sort of manual for Paxil," an antidepressant in the same class as Zoloft that is made by GlaxoSmithKline. Pittman took Paxil briefly before being switched to Zoloft.

As for the confidential Pfizer documents being sought by the defense, Justice said he did not have them. "I don't have it. I don't want it. It's not material to my case," he said.

Even if Justice does not have copies of the secret documents, Vickery argued that the solicitor is required under court rules to request the documents from the drug company.

Claiming the prosecutor had been "spoon-fed" only the information Pfizer wanted him to know, Vickery asked: "If he was only told half the story by Pfizer, why wouldn't he want to know the other half?"

Short said he would rule within the next few days on whether the court would require Justice to request the documents sought by the defense.

Jim Parham, a Greenville attorney representing Pfizer, told the judge that the defense team was trying to make an "end run" around a civil court's confidentiality order.

"All of this material is not relative to this case," Parham said, adding no scientific authority has connected Zoloft to patient violence or suicide.

In response to Parham's assertion that no link exists between Zoloft and potential harmful side effects, Vickery said after the hearing that a "host of evidence" exists.

"What could be more persuasive in linking this drug to violence or suicide than internal memos from the company itself?" Vickery asked. "It's time these documents see the light of day."

Previously unpublished studies from antidepressant makers, including Pfizer, prompted the FDA in March to request caution labels on such drugs warning doctors and patients to watch for increased signs of suicide, especially when beginning treatment. In December, the British drug review agency all but banned prescribing antidepressants to children after reviewing the same studies and determining most of the drugs were either ineffective in treating depression in juveniles or were too dangerous. Both the U.S. and British actions included Zoloft.

Pfizer representatives will argue to withhold their confidential documents from the Pittman case on June 10, when pretrial motions are heard.

If these documents say what the defense claims and are allowed, they could prove crucial in Pittman's trial. The boy had been taking Paxil and Zoloft for about five weeks before fatally shooting Joe Frank Pittman and Joy Roberts Pittman while they slept in their rural Chester County home on Nov. 28, 2001. He later set the house on fire and fled to Cherokee County in a family car. He was 12 at the time.

Now 15, Pittman is being tried as an adult and could receive up to life in prison if convicted.

Joe D. Pittman, the boy's father, was adamant after the hearing that the Pfizer documents be made available to aid in his son's defense.

"Every time these lawyers get up and argue for these documents not to come out, they're killing another person," Joe D. Pittman said. "... Right's right and wrong is wrong. The fact they have these and won't release them is wrong. How can they hold that from us? They don't have that right."

Jason Cato 329-4071


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