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Kin testify in teen's Zoloft defense trial

From Jim Polk

Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
Crime, Law and Justice

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (CNN) -- Relatives of Chris Pittman testified Monday that shortly before the youth killed his grandparents he complained of burning sensations and exhibited restlessness -- side effects linked to the antidepressant he was taking.

Melinda Rector, Pittman's aunt and the only daughter of the victims, told jurors that she talked to her nephew five days before he shot her parents and that he spoke quickly and was unhappy about what he said the medication was doing to him.

She quoted him as saying, "I'm burning under my skin, and I can't put it out."

Pittman's sister, Danielle Pittman Finchum, testified that "he'd be sitting there fidgeting with his hands all the time. He was constantly up and down. He was crazy."

Pittman, 15, is on trial as an adult, facing 30 years to life if convicted of murder in the November 2001 killings of his grandparents Joe and Joy Pittman.

Defense attorneys contend Zoloft drove him to shoot the couple, set fire to their home outside Chester, South Carolina, and drive away with his dog.

David Healy, a psychiatrist for the defense, has identified the burning sensation that Rector described as a possible result of taking Zoloft.

That sensation is an uncontrolled restlessness that the doctor said can be a precursor to violence.

On Friday, Healy identified akathisia, or psychomotor restlessness, as one of the conditions he said can precede violence. (Full story)

He said of patients such as Pittman, "They feel like they're going to jump out of their skin. They often say their skin is burning."

Prosecutors say Pittman, then 12, shot his grandparents because they had disciplined him.

Finchum, 18, said her brother was extremely restless when his grandparents took him south for a family visit during Thanksgiving, less than a week before the killings.

She said her brother would start sentences, never finish them and keep on talking. "You couldn't get him to shut up," she testified.

Finchum said her brother had been a quiet, somewhat shy child until then, but his demeanor changed completely during that visit -- not long after he began taking Zoloft.

The Food and Drug Administration has warned doctors and parents to watch for signs such as akathisia, anxiety, agitation and aggression among younger patients, particularly when they first begin taking antidepressant drugs such as Zoloft.

The FDA last fall warned that these drugs can lead to suicidal behavior. However, the FDA has never linked them to violence toward others.

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

The trial, in its second week in Charleston, could go to the jury by the end of the week.

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