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Defense doctor: Zoloft could have led youth to kill

From Jim Polk

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A psychiatrist testifies that Christopher Pittman killed his grandparents out of anger.
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Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
Pfizer Incorporated
South Carolina

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (CNN) -- A psychiatrist testified Friday that he believes the antidepressant drug Zoloft could have prompted a boy to kill his grandparents three years ago.

"I think there is a very strong argument that can be made that the drug caused the problem," Dr. David Healy testified for the defense at the double murder trial of Christopher Pittman.

Prosecutors say Pittman shot his grandparents, Joe and Joy Pittman, in November 2001 when he was 12 because they had disciplined him. Defense attorneys say the boy was hallucinating because of a dose of Zoloft when he shot his sleeping grandparents in their home outside Chester, South Carolina.

Pittman, who was diagnosed with a low level of depression, had been given only a starter-level dosage of the antidepressant.

Under cross-examination Friday, Healy told prosecutors, "I do not believe he [Pittman] had the mental capacity to tell right from wrong."

That is the key issue before the jury. Pittman, now 15, is being tried as an adult on two charges of murder that could send him to prison for 30 years to life if he is convicted.

The defense has acknowledged it was the boy who carried a shotgun into his grandparents' bedroom and fired four times.

Since then, the Food and Drug Administration has warned doctors that antidepressants such as Zoloft can cause suicidal behavior among some children, but it has never linked such antidepressants to violence toward others.

Pfizer, which makes Zoloft, says there is no scientific evidence that its drug causes violence by either adults or children.

Zoloft is not approved for treatment of children with depression, but nevertheless is widely prescribed by many doctors. However, Healy testified that Zoloft and similar drugs can cause aggression and anxiety -- and they can lead to violence.

The prosecution contends Pittman waited for his grandparents to go to bed, carefully loaded the shotgun and shot the couple, then set fire to the house and drove away with his dog.

Psychiatrist Dr. James Ballenger testified for the prosecution a day earlier that the boy was furious with his grandfather because he threatened to send him back to an unhappy home in Florida after he got into a fight on a school bus. (Thursday's testimony)

The trial recessed at midafternoon Friday and will enter its second week Monday morning.

Pittman was released Thursday into custody of relatives after more than three years behind bars in a state juvenile facility. He will remain out on bond only until the trial is over, probably by the end of next week.

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