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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
• 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
• 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
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
"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
"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.
"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."
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
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
• 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
"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
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
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
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
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
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,
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
"There should definitely be reasonable doubt," Joe D. Pittman
said. "Yes, he committed the crime. But was he in his own right
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 mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org