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Can Being on Medication Be Used As a Criminal Defense?

A South Carolina teenager who shot his grandparents to death when he was 12 will serve two 30-year sentences, one for each murder conviction, despite a defense based on his taking the antidepressant medicine Zoloft. Arguments that the teen was "involuntarily intoxicated" and did not know right from wrong were rejected by the South Carolina Supreme Court in State v. Christopher Pittman, decided on June 11, 2007.

Pittman had a troubled past. He started with a different antidepressant. His parents let him move in with grandparents to start a new life. When the grandparents took Christopher to a new doctor, Zoloft was prescribed.

Soon after, Christopher and the grandparents had an argument. The grandfather locked the boy in his room and warned he would paddle Christopher if he came out. When Christopher came out, the grandfather paddled him. After the grandparents went to bed, Christopher loaded a shotgun, entered their bedroom, and killed them. He also rigged candles and burned down the house.

On appeal, one issue was whether the court was wrong to reject the defense of "involuntary manslaughter". This is the unintentional killing of another without malice, while engaged in a lawful activity with reckless disregard for the safety of others. The defense pointed out that taking Zoloft is a 'lawful activity'. But, after hearing the argument, the court held that pointing a shotgun at people in bed "goes far beyond recklessness."

Insanity defense arguments came next. South Carolina uses the so-called 'M'Naughten test' for determining whether a defendant's mental condition at the time of a crime renders him criminally responsible. About one-half of the states use this test, in which a defendant is considered legally insane if, at the time of the offense, he lacked the capacity to distinguish right from wrong, morally or legally.

But, the defense wanted the jury to consider the effects of "involuntary intoxication." They wanted to apply the 'Model Penal Code' standard of inability to conform one's conduct to the requirements of the law. The court applied South Carolina's usual test, but did instruct jurors to find the defendant not guilty if they found involuntary intoxication. The jury verdict was guilty. The state supreme court held that the trial judge applied the correct standard and gave the proper jury instruction.

Next, the defendant claimed that the trial judge failed to allow adequate evidence about the effects of Zoloft.

Trial evidence included testimony that antidepressant medication can cause mania and emotional blunting. One expert testified that the same "mechanisms" that trigger a Zoloft patient to commit suicide could trigger one to harm another person.

Defense testimony linked Zoloft to agitation and hallucinations. The trial court even allowed one patient to testify about his experiences on a different antidepressant, which caused irritability, impulsiveness, and suicidal thoughts. That witness claimed the medication caused him to slam his vehicle into his ex-wife's vehicle and house.

So, the court said "enough is enough" and questioned the reliability of additional Zoloft testimony including conclusions about cause and effect.

New Hampshire has a different test for insanity. It requires proof of two elements: first, that at the time of the crime, the defendant was suffering from a mental disease or defect; second, that the mental disease or defect caused the criminal action. Insanity is a question of fact left to the jury.

Juries rarely accept the insanity defense. One New Hampshire defendant claimed he did not have the required intent to commit murder due to the fact that he "spent the day drinking beer and whiskey". The jury didn't buy it, and the conviction was upheld. (State v. St. Laurent, 1994.)

Another failed defense claimed "cognitive impairment", caused by a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, long-term alcohol abuse, and a prior learning disability. (State v. Gourlay, 2002.) That case also notes that 'diminished capacity' is not a defense in New Hampshire.

Legal distinctions between states of mind and various insanity standards have generated reams of legal comment. However, juries tend to hold people to personal responsibility regardless of perceived mental illnesses, medications or other substances.

Additional resources provided by the author

This is provided for informational purposes only. Legal advice can only be given in an office appointment by an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction with experience in the area in which your concern lies.

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