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Doctor says boy's Zoloft prescription unchanged

Teenage defendant granted release on bail during trial

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A boy who shot his grandparents to death told police they deserved to die.
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South Carolina

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (CNN) -- A family doctor testified Wednesday that a teenager was taking a starter dose of the antidepressant Zoloft when the boy shot his grandparents to death.

The testimony by Dr. Eric Naumann, then a family physician in rural Chester, undercut defense arguments that Christopher Pittman was hallucinating and out of control after his Zoloft dosage was doubled.

Christopher, 15, is being tried as an adult on two counts of murder in the November 2001 deaths of his grandparents, Joe and Joy Pittman. The teenager could face up to life in prison if convicted.

Christopher's case has drawn national attention because the defense contends the Zoloft he was taking triggered the crime.

In another matter, Christopher was granted release on bail Wednesday afternoon after three years in a juvenile prison facility.

Judge Daniel Pieper approved the boy's release on the third day of his trial. Later in the afternoon, however, Pieper indicated that not all of the paperwork had been completed for the property bond required to permit the boy's temporary freedom, and his release could be delayed for another day or more.

Christopher is expected to live in a home his relatives are renting during the trial and will be required to wear an electronic tracking bracelet.

The teenager has sat in court with his head down, crying from time to time, for much of the past three days, but reacted with a slight, shy smile when the judge granted him temporary freedom.

During Wednesday's testimony, family doctor Naumann said he saw the boy two days before the killings. The doctor said he left the prescription unchanged and "did not increase it."

Called as a prosecution witness, Naumann said that Christopher looked fine, had lots of energy and a good appetite but showed signs of a low level of depression on a written test.

A month before, Christopher had come to Chester, in upstate South Carolina, to live with his grandparents after troubles with his father in Florida and a six-day stay in a psychiatric center there.

The doctor said the boy's grandmother brought Christopher to the doctor on November 5, 2001. Naumann said he gave Christopher a free sample of Zoloft, called a starter pack, with instructions to take 25 milligrams a day the first week, then 50 milligrams daily the next two weeks, and return to see him again after then.

On November 26, the doctor said he wrote a new prescription for the standard 50 milligrams a day, leaving the dosage unchanged.

The next day, according to testimony, Christopher got into a fight on a school bus with a younger boy. On November 28, his grandparents were called to the school, and an assistant principal suspended Christopher from riding the bus.

That night, the defense has acknowledged in court, Christopher killed his grandparents with a shotgun.

When caught the day after the shootings, Christopher told detectives he was on Zoloft, but he gave a different reason for the shootings, saying his grandfather had locked him in his room because of the school fight, then beat him with a large wooden paddle when he came out for a drink of water, according to court documents.

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

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

However, he also told Lucinda McCellar, the deputy sheriff who took his statement, "I don't know if I would do it again."

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

Christopher told police that after killing his grandparents, he used candles and lighter fluid to set the house on fire, then fled in a sport utility vehicle with his dog, three guns and $33 stolen from his grandmother's purse, according to police records.

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, Christopher initially told police that a 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 Christopher eventually confessed that he killed his grandparents, she said.

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

Zoloft, along with prescription antidepressants such as Prozac and Paxil, have been at the center of controversy over their effects on children.

In October, the Food and Drug Administration decided there was a measurable link between these antidepressants 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 antidepressants and violence toward others.

In a statement, Pfizer Inc., which makes Zoloft, said, "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 antidepressants are widely prescribed for younger patients as well as adults.

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

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

The killings took place outside Chester, but the trial was moved downstate to Charleston after the judge and prosecutor withdrew for personal reasons.

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

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