The Supreme Court opted today not to hear the case of 19-year-old Christopher Pittman, who was 12 years old on November 28, 2001, when he shot his grandparents, set fire to their home and stole their car to make a getaway with his dog. Pittman was tried as an adult in 2005; his attorneys unsuccessfully argued during trial that his behavior had been influenced by the high doses of the antidepressant Zoloft he had recently been prescribed.
The day of the killings, the New York Times points out, “Christopher allegedly assaulted a second-grader on a school bus. Later that day, he misbehaved at choir practice. That night, his grandparents [with whom he was living at the time] confined him to his room and warned him that he would be paddled if he came out. Christopher did come out, and his grandfather was true to his word.”
(According to FDA warnings, Zoloft has been known to trigger “the emergence of anxiety, agitation, panic attacks, insomnia, irritability, hostility, aggressiveness, impulsivity, akathisia (psychomotor restlessness), hypomania, mania, other unusual changes in behavior, worsening of depression… as well as the emergence of suicidality in adult and pediatric patients being treated for major depressive disorder and other indications both psychiatric an nonpsychiatric.” Further, “a causal role for antidepressants inducing suicidality has been established in pediatric trials,” the FDA warns.)
Pittman lost the case and was sentenced to thirty years without the possibility of parole. His attorneys appealed to the South Carolina Supreme Court but were turned down; the state Justices ruled that the trial had been fair and the punishment suitable to the crime, even though the jury was not allowed to consider a lower charge of manslaughter.
According to the Times, South Carolina Supreme Court Justice Costa Pleicones, who dissented, believed the trial judge should have allowed the jurors to consider a manslaughter charge and that, given the defendant’s age and medical condition, his confession “cannot be said to be voluntary under the totality of the circumstances.”
The defense team pressed on and appealed up to the US Supreme Court, dropping the Zoloft argument but continuing to argue that Pittman’s sentence violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. “Pittman’s lawyers argued no other inmate in the United States is serving so severe a sentence for a crime committed at such an early age,” CNN reports. Without issuing any comment to explain their decision, the Supreme Court Justices declined earlier today to hear the case.
Most likely, the Justices are implicitly suggesting that this is a matter for the states to work out. At what point, though, would they consider taking up a case like this? Another way to ask the same question is to use language lifted from Roper v. Simmons, the landmark 2005 Supreme Court decision banning the death penalty for juveniles: How far do our “standards of decency” on such matters have to “evolve” before the Supreme Court will see fit to enshrine them into law?