Sunday, October 02, 2005

The Zoloft Defence

COLUMBIA - The S.C. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the appeal of 16-year-old Christopher Pittman, who mounted a Zoloft defense before he was convicted of the shotgun slayings of his grandparents.

Pittman was convicted last February of the murders of Joe Pittman, 66, and Joy Pittman, 62, in their Chester County home in November 2001. The youth, who was 12 at the time of the slayings, was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

The Supreme Court said the case "involves an issue of significant public interest or a legal principle of major importance." Its order did not specify what issue or legal principle merited its review.

Pittman's lawyers, after the trial, had asked the trial judge to reduce his sentence to time served and probation until Pittman is 21.

Defense lawyers cited the U.S. Supreme Court's recent ban on the death penalty for minors in arguing 30 years is "unconstitutionally excessive."

Circuit Court Judge Danny Pieper, who presided at the trial, denied the appeal. "This court is not convinced that standards of decency have evolved to such an extent that would no longer permit juveniles to be sentenced to lengthy terms of imprisonment," he wrote.

The defense argued during the trial that Pittman was involuntarily intoxicated by the antidepressant Zoloft and didn't know right from wrong at the time of the slayings.

Since the Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal, the matter bypasses the S.C. Court of Appeals.

Professor James Flanagan of the University of South Carolina Law School said the Supreme Court doesn't often bypass the appeals court.

But he said it's not unusual when an unsettled issue of law is at stake. Flanagan said the rule is one that the Supreme Court uses "to bring before itself those cases that it is ultimately going to end up hearing anyway."

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According to the Nebraska lawsuit, Johnson was prescribed the drug on July 29, 2003, less than three weeks before he committed suicide
Bonnie Johnson, who remained close with her ex-husband years after they divorced and who is a nurse, said she was familiar with the antidepressant and was concerned Russell had started taking it.
“He didn’t even get through the samples (and start taking the actual prescription) when he committed suicide,” she said.
When he was prescribed the drug, Bonnie said she was in Wyoming looking into placement options for Travis, their oldest son, who is autistic. She and Russell talked daily on the phone.
“I was anxious to get back because I wanted him off the drug,” she said.
Just hours before he killed himself, Johnson called a friend and asked him to fix one of his vehicles, said Gordon Johnson, Russell’s father. He left no note and Gordon said he can’t understand why his son took his own life. He had no money problems, his cancer surgery was successful and he had no enemies, his father said. His family said he’d been cancer-free for four months.
“There’s no reason in the world for him to do this,” Gordon Johnson said.
Bowde Johnson, who graduated from Chadron State College after his father’s death because he’d made a promise to his dad, doesn’t know what will happen with the lawsuit.
But he does know how devastating his father’s death has been to his whole family.
“On a good day you think about it 100 times,” he said. “On a bad day, you think about it 1,000 times.”
Reach Margaret Reist at 473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

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