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Boy told police his grandparents 'deserved' to die

Defense blames Zoloft as murder trial opens

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The defense for a youth accused of killing his grandparents blames the antidepressant Zoloft for his actions.
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South Carolina

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (CNN) -- A South Carolina boy who shotgunned his grandparents to death and burned down their house told police they "deserved" to die because his grandfather had beaten him with a paddle after locking him in his room for several hours, according to testimony in his trial Tuesday.

Christopher Pittman, 15, who was 12 at the time of the November 2001 slayings of Joe Frank and Joy Pittman, is being tried as an adult on murder charges. His defense is blaming the killings on the antidepressant drug Zoloft, which Pittman was taking at the time.

CNN learned Tuesday that Pittman, who has been held in a juvenile detention facility for more than three years awaiting trial, will be released on bail Wednesday into the custody of his family. He will be required to wear a monitoring device that tracks him by satellite, his attorney said.

Pittman's confession to police was read in court Tuesday by Lucinda McCellar, the deputy sheriff who took his statement.

Pittman told McCellar that on the day of the killings, he called his grandparents to come to his school at the request of the vice principal, after another student accused Pittman of choking him on the school bus. His grandparents, who were taking care of him at the time, took him home that afternoon and locked him in his room, he said

"My grandpa said if I came out, he was going to beat me with the paddle," Pittman said. "I came out at about 10 something. I was going to get something to drink. My granddad got the paddle. I tried to get my shotgun. He hit me on my back and my butt. Then he said if I came out anymore, he said he would hit me across the head with it. He had beat me back into my room."

In his confession, Pittman told police that after the beating, he waited about 10 minutes after his grandparents went to bed, then loaded a shotgun.

"I went in their room. I just aimed at the bed. I shot four times," he said. "I'm not sorry. They deserved it. They hit me with the paddle."

However, Pittman also told McCellar, "I don't know if I would do it again."

"Everybody hates me. I'm useless," he said.

Pittman told police that after killing his grandparents, he used candles and lighter fluid to set the house on fire, then fled in an SUV with his dog, three guns and $33 stolen from his grandmother's purse.

After driving to a neighboring county and getting the vehicle stuck, he was picked up by hunters and taken to a fire station.

According to McCellar, Pittman initially told police that a black stranger had killed his grandparents and kidnapped him. But police were suspicious because the seat in the SUV was moved close to the steering wheel, and Pittman eventually confessed that he killed his grandparents, she said.

McCellar and other prosecution witnesses who observed Pittman during questioning described him as calm and lucid and said he answered questions clearly -- testimony designed to rebut the defense's contention that Pittman's violence was linked to his use of Zoloft.

Zoloft, along with similar prescription drugs such as Prozac and Paxil, have been the subject of a controversial battle with the Food and Drug Administration over their effects on children.

The FDA decided in October there was a measurable link between these anti-depressants and suicidal actions or thoughts among some younger patients, telling manufacturers to strengthen warnings to doctors and parents.

However, the FDA has never suggested there is any connection between the anti-depressants and violence toward other people.

Officials at Pfizer, which makes Zoloft, said in a written statement that "there is no scientific evidence to suggest that Zoloft contributes to violent behavior in either adults or children."

While Zoloft is not recommended for use by children with depression, the drug and similar anti-depressants are widely prescribed for younger patients as well as adults.

In his opening statement, defense attorney Andy Vickery said Pittman was "a shy, decent boy who was acting under the influence of a powerful, mind-altering drug."

Vickery said the drug caused Pittman to suffer "command hallucinations" that told him to kill his grandparents.

The killings took place outside of Chester, in upstate South Carolina, but the trial was moved to Charleston after the judge and prosecutor withdrew for personal reasons.

If convicted of murder as an adult, Pittman could be sentenced to 30 years to life in prison.

CNN's Elizabeth Cohen and Jim Polk contributed to this report.

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