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Jurors find teenager guilty of murdering his grandparents

By John Springer
Court TV

In this image from television, Pittman reacts as he is sentenced.
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CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Court TV) -- A teenager who killed his grandparents when he was 12 years old was convicted of two counts of murder Tuesday by jurors who rejected his claim that an antidepressant made him unable to discern right from wrong.

A judge immediately sentenced Christopher Pittman, now 15, to 30 years in prison, the mandatory minimum sentence prescribed by state law.

Speaking for the first time at any length since his trial began January 31, Christopher told Judge Danny Pieper that the sentence would be decided by God.

"All I can really say is, I know it's in the hands of God," Christopher said. "Whatever he decides on is what it's going to be."

Christopher bowed his head but showed no emotion as court clerk Scott Wilson read the verdict after jurors deliberated for about six and a half hours over two days. Before he was sentenced, family members asked the judge for leniency.

"I love my son very dearly and want to beg you for mercy on my son, on his behalf," said Joe Frank Pittman Jr., Christopher's father and the son of the victims.

"I love my son with all my heart, as I did my mom and dad. If they were here today, they'd be begging for mercy," Pittman said.

Melinda Pittman Rector, daughter of the victims, Joe Pittman, 66, and Joy Pittman, 62, echoed the sentiment.

"That was not my nephew that night," she said, referring to the effects of the drug Zoloft on Christopher. "He's a good kid. We have a good family and we miss him."

Lead defense attorney Andy Vickery told the judge that if he wanted to, he could rule that the South Carolina law mandating a minimum sentence of 30 years was unconstitutional, given Christopher's age at the time of the killings.

"You have a legislative mandate that says you shall not give him less than 30 years but you have a constitutional imperative ... that the sentence must be in light of the full circumstances, including his age."

Judge, jurors speak out

Judge Danny Pieper: "A very tragic case."

The judge said he was sympathetic but was bound by the law.

"This is a very tragic case, tragic to the victim and tragic to the entire family," Pieper said. "This case has called attention to the very core values of this society about the treatment of juveniles and punishment."

Pieper then sentenced Christopher to 30 years for each of the killings, to run concurrently.

"Good luck to you," Pieper told the defendant.

All but one juror refused to speak to reporters about the verdict or the deliberations.

Steven Platt, a 26-year-old accounting clerk for an electrical supply wholesaler, said the group believed that Christopher exhibited side effects from Zoloft but did not feel it was severe enough to let him escape criminal responsibility.

"It always seemed to me that the defense was grasping at straws. They were always trying to use the drug's side effects as a smoke screen, just like the prosecution said in the closing arguments," Platt said. "They were trying to throw us off focus. That's how it seemed to me."

According to Platt, the jury was leaning 9-3 toward conviction when deliberations began Monday. He said the biggest hurdle the group had to overcome was Christopher's age.

"It was difficult, simply because he was 12 years old when he did this," Platt said. "That was the big factor in the deliberations we did. That played a major role in the difficulty."

Father surfaces

The appearance of Christopher's father in court was the first since the trial began. He told the court that he did not want his presence to become a distraction, a reference to testimony that Christopher went to live with his grandparents to get away from his disciplinarian father.

Prosecutors say it was Christopher's intense dislike for being disciplined that fueled the rage that caused him to kill.

On November 28, 2001, Christopher was angry with his paternal grandparents because they punished him for an incident on a school bus the previous day. According to the boy's confession, he lay in bed waiting for the couple to fall asleep before loading a .410-gauge shotgun his father had given him as a gift the previous week.

Christopher told police that he pumped birdshot through his grandfather's open mouth. He shot Joy Pittman in the side of the head. A forensic pathologist testified that both victims were dead before Christopher set a fire that consumed the Pittman's modest home in rural South Carolina.

Christopher told police that Joe Pittman deserved to die because he paddled the boy. Joy Pittman was killed because she did nothing to stop it, according to the boy's confession.

Although Christopher's lawyers blamed an adverse reaction to Zoloft for making Christopher manic and psychotic, defense attorneys Andy Vickery and Paul Waldner tried unsuccessfully to persuade jurors that Christopher could not form the criminal intent to commit murder because of his age.

The defense stipulated that Christopher killed his grandparents, leaving prosecutors only to rebut the presumption under South Carolina law that people under the age of 14 cannot form criminal intent to commit murder. To do that, prosecutors highlighted Christopher's confession, including his account of planning the murders and his getaway.

Prosecutors also highlighted the fact that Christopher initially tried to blame the killings on someone else and finally told detectives that he was not sorry for what happened.

"They deserved it," Christopher said to several law enforcement officers and at least one mental-health professional.

Blaming Zoloft

The defense, however, tried to establish that everything Christopher did, said or failed to do was either misinterpreted, someone else's fault or the result of an adverse reaction to the antidepressant.

Jurors heard that the antidepressant and others in its class have been linked to increased suicide ideation, agitation, restlessness and other abnormal behavior in adolescents.

Prosecutors called the Zoloft defense a "smoke screen" during closing arguments.

Platt said jurors were very impressed with Dr. James Ballenger, a state witness whom the defense called as part of its case. Ballenger offered the opinion that Christopher knew right from wrong as evidenced by his careful planning, attempt to avoid prosecution and eventual confession.

The jury did not find the defense's chief expert, child psychiatrist Lanette Atkins, reliable. Atkins testified that although she could not form an opinion about whether Christopher knew right from wrong when he killed his grandparents when she testified last year, she since came to the conclusion that he could not have known because of his Zoloft use.

Platt said prosecutors easily overcame their burden of proving the boy knew right from wrong by putting on evidence about the fire Christopher set and his own statements that he was trying to get away without being caught.

The defense claim that the fire and statements were a product of the antidepressant just did not fly, Platt said.

"It all flowed too well for someone who wouldn't know right from wrong," the juror said.

Christopher, who is awaiting trial for arson in family court, was immediately taken into custody by court officers and will be confined in South Carolina's Juvenile Detention Center in Columbia.

If the nine women and three men on the jury had found him guilty but mentally ill or not guilty by reason of insanity, he would have been confined to a forensic psychiatric hospital for an undetermined length of time.

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