From Jim Polk
Wednesday, February 9, 2005 Posted: 4:30 PM EST (2130 GMT)
CHARLESTON, South Carolina (CNN) -- A child psychiatrist testified Tuesday that Christopher Pittman's behavior was so bizarre the night he shot and killed his grandparents that the boy was psychotic and not responsible for what he did in her opinion.
Dr. Lanette Atkins said the child, then 12, was suffering a "substance abuse mood disorder" caused by Zoloft, the anti-depressant prescription drug he was taking.
But under cross-examination, Atkins conceded she didn't reach that diagnosis until more than 2 1/2 years after the slayings and after a year and a half of sessions with Pittman.
Pittman, now 15, is on trial as an adult, facing a possible maximum sentence of 30 years to life in the November 2001 killings of his grandparents.
Defense attorneys contend Zoloft drove him to shoot Joe and Joy Pittman, set fire to their home outside Chester and drive away with his dog.
But the prosecution argues the boy killed the couple because he was furious when told he might be sent back to an unhappy home in Florida following a school bus scuffle.
Atkins worked for the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice when she first began handling Pittman's case a year after the slayings. She remains a state employee and usually testifies for the prosecution. But she has taken a leave of absence from her government position, and the defense is paying her as an expert in the trial.
Under defense questioning Monday, Atkins testified that when she finally asked Pittman to tell her what happened, he said he was hearing "echoes from inside his head, saying, 'Kill. Kill. Do it.' "
She said, "They kept getting stronger. ... He went upstairs and killed his grandparents."
Pittman has admitted carrying his shotgun into his grandparents' bedroom and shooting them four times.
Because of what she termed a "mood disorder induced by anti-depressant medicine," Atkins testified the youth didn't have the capacity for criminal intent and couldn't tell right from wrong.
Pittman had run away from home in Florida and was sent to a psychiatric center before his grandparents brought him back to live with them in upstate South Carolina.
A family doctor diagnosed him as depressed and gave him a sample starter pack of Zoloft three weeks before the shootings.
However, Atkins theorized the child probably was taking twice the daily dosage, perhaps even more, and said that amount made him manic.
In October, the Food and Drug Administration decided there was a measurable link between some antidepressants such as Zoloft and suicidal actions or thoughts among some younger patients, and it told manufacturers to strengthen warnings to doctors and parents.
However, Zoloft's manufacturer, Pfizer Inc., says no scientific evidence exists to suggest the medication leads to violence against others. The FDA also has never tied these drugs to such violence.
The agency hasn't approved Zoloft for the treatment of depression in children, but it is widely prescribed. A number of psychiatrists say many children have benefited from the medication and similar anti-depressants.