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Pittman Trial Likely To Start In February

Dec 31, 2003 | The Herald

t's been more than two years since Christopher Pittman was charged as a pre-teen with killing his grandparents in rural Chester County. His trial is tentatively scheduled to begin Feb. 23.

"That's the target date everybody is shooting for," said 6th Circuit Solicitor John Justice, adding the date should definitely be known by mid-January.

Testimony from such experts will prove pivotal, Justice said, because he doesn't expect the case's facts to be widely disputed.

On Nov. 29, 2001, Joe Frank Pittman and Joy Roberts Pittman were found dead inside their burned home. Each had been shot in the head. Christopher, then 12, was found later that morning in Cherokee County, where he had fled in a family car. Authorities recovered what is believed to be the murder weapon and said the boy later confessed. He's been charged with double murder and arson.

Now 14, Christopher will be tried as an adult. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison.

Anti-depressants blamed

His family and supporters claim a five-week regimen of Paxil and Zoloft, anti-depressant medications, are to blame for his violent behavior.

Both anti-depressants 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 there may be an increased risk of suicide in children taking Paxil. The agency will hold an advisory panel meeting Feb. 2 to listen to public testimony about adverse reactions experienced by children taking anti-depressants.

On Dec. 8, the British government all but banned doctors there from prescribing SSRIs to depressed children. Exempted was Prozac, the only SSRI approved by the FDA for treating depression in children.

Justice said he was unofficially advised last week that the defense may use a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. Though he has a couple of experts in mind to help with his case, Justice said he still needs to recruit a pharmacology expert for the drug-induced insanity issue.

Defense says costly expert necessary

The defense filed a request Tuesday with the state Office of Indigent Defense for nearly $50,000 to hire Dr. Peter Breggin, an expert psychiatrist on the subject of antidepressants.

The pool of such experts is extremely small,said, the defense team comparing the numbers to the early days of forensic DNA experts. And although these experts are costly, it is a necessary expense.

Breggin practices in Ithica, N.Y., and is the author of 19 books, including "The Anti-depressant Fact Book." He's served as a medical expert in civil and criminal cases for more than 30 years.

He recently published a report in the International Journal of Risk & Safety in Medicine. In it, he stated adverse reactions to SSRIs can produce "a stimulant profile that ranges from mild agitation to manic psychosis, agitated depression, obsessive preoccupations that are alien or uncharacteristic of the individual and akathisia. Each of these reactions can worsen the individual's mental condition and can result in suicidality, violence and other forms of extreme abnormal behavior."

In a December 2001 interview with The Herald, just days after the Pittmans were killed, Breggin said, "This kind of bizarre violence is characteristic of these drugs." He said SSRIs can produce mania and feelings of extreme irritability that lead to overreaction in some people, though not all.

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