COLUMBIA — A South Carolina man who blamed the antidepressant drug Zoloft for the shotgun slaying of his grandparents when he was 12 years old pleaded guilty at a hearing Thursday to voluntary manslaughter.
Judge Ernest Kinard also sentenced Christopher Pittman, now 21, to serve 25 years in prison as part of a plea deal that means he could be released from prison in about 12 years. He had been serving a 30 year sentence, with a projected release in 2031.
Pittman was tried as an adult in the 2001 slaying of his grandparents in their Chester home. He was convicted of shooting Joe and Joy Pittman while they slept and setting fire to their home, about 50 miles north of Columbia, then taking off in the family car.
Initially telling police a black man killed his grandparents and set the fire, the boy later admitted to the crimes, saying he shot his grandparents because they disciplined him after a fight on a school bus.
At his 2005 trial, Pittman’s attorneys argued that the prescription drug Zoloft caused him to become manic and commit the slayings. He was convicted of two counts of murder and sentenced to the minimum of 30 years in prison. Appeals to the South Carolina and U.S. Supreme Courts have been unsuccessful.
Prosecutors said Pittman’s actions, like setting fire to his grandparents’ home, showed he knew the killings were wrong. Zoloft manufacturer Pfizer Inc. said after the verdict that Zoloft “didn’t cause his problems, nor did the medication drive him to commit murder.”
A year after Pittman’s trial, federal drug authorities began requiring Zoloft and other antidepressants to carry “black box” warnings — the government’s strongest warning short of a ban — about an increased risk of suicidal behavior in children, but not about potential homicidal risks.
During a post-conviction relief hearing last year, Pittman said his chief attorneys — lawyers who specialized in suing pharmaceutical companies — told him they were convinced the jury would blame Zoloft for the killings. He also said they never told him jurors in South Carolina could both blame the drug and find him guilty of murder.
“I wasn’t told even if Zoloft was a part in my crime, I still could be found guilty and I was looking at 30 years to life. With the plea bargain, I could have gotten a lot less,” he said then.
In July, a circuit court agreed with Pittman, granting him a new trial because of errors made by his original lawyers, including not pursuing a plea deal. A date for that new trial had not yet been set before Thursday’s plea hearing.
As part of the deal, Pittman also agreed to drop any appeals of his conviction. His new attorney would not comment Thursday on his client’s reasons for changing his plea but said the deal gives his client a chance at getting out of prison sooner.
“It was his decision,” said Seth Farber, who was at Thursday’s hearing. “And he pled guilty knowingly.”
Pittman’s family was not at the hearing, and he made no statement beyond answering the judge’s questions, Farber said.
Solicitor Doug Barfield, the chief prosecutor in Chester County, said he was glad to see an end to the case that began nearly a decade ago.