Withdrawal from drugs blamed in ’96 killing — (Indianapolis Star)

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Indianapolis Star

By Jim Gillaspy

August 19, 2001

Lawyers will seek new trial, saying man was temporarily insane while attacking woman.

NOBLESVILLE, Ind. — When they talk of Peter Georgopulos and his lovesick evolution into a brutal killer, opposing lawyers in his murder case agree: The shy churchgoer was a changed man by the time the object of his affection became the target for his violence.

What they never have agreed on is what turned the mild-mannered suitor into a savage assailant. Five years ago, Georgopulos battered Fishers real estate agent Kim Schriner with a 4-pound rock and stabbed her 57 times.

It’s a question they’re about to argue again. In a Hamilton Superior Court 1 hearing set for Aug. 30, new lawyers for the convicted murderer intend to explain their client’s gruesome transformation. In the process, they hope to win him a new trial.

Defense attorney Michael Mosher says new evidence will obscure a prosecution view of the killing as the calculated revenge of an obsessed would-be lover. Now, he says, there is scientific support for a temporary insanity defense — specifically, evidence that the attack by Georgopulos resulted from a psychotic mania triggered by withdrawal from anti-depressants.

In the 1997 trial, jurors rejected a defense claim of temporary insanity. But the defense team then could offer no explanation for their client’s homicidal actions. Now, Mosher and co-counsel Daniel Paul hope their findings will persuade Judge Steven Nation to grant their motion for a new trial.

The argument doesn’t impress the prosecuting attorney in the case, Daniel E. Henke.

“Most of the literature and information available on this topic was already available in 1997,” Henke said. “It was not raised; but it’s not like, oh, let’s come up with plan B and have a new trial because it was not presented.”

A Hamilton County jury convicted Georgopulos in September 1997. Nation punished the penitent engineer with a 65-year prison term. The judge said Georgopulos had carefully planned the execution, an aggravating factor that warranted maximum punishment.

Mosher contends, however, that the effects of prescription drug withdrawal are to blame for the grisly attack on Schriner.

“Peter Georgopulos could not tell right from wrong because he was suffering from mania induced by withdrawal from Zoloft and Xanax,” he said in seeking a new trial.

Mosher, a Texas lawyer with expertise in cases involving prescription drugs and their effects, said the evidence of “discontinuation mania” never surfaced at trial because it is a relatively new area of research and is not familiar to many attorneys and psychiatrists.

Jurors who rejected an insanity defense never got an explanation for the alleged slide into psychosis that culminated with the killing on June 30, 1996. The prosecutor’s view of a scorned suitor bent on violent revenge was the only scenario offered.

It played well with jurors, but defied the image friends and family had of Georgopulos: a 29-year-old successful college graduate with no history of aggression and a reputation as a kind and thoughtful man who regularly attended Greek Orthodox church services.

“Without an explanation,” Mosher said, “no juror could possibly be expected to believe or accept that the quiet, unassuming, unpsychotic person who sat before them in the person of Peter Georgopulos had been completely psychotic at the time of the killing of Kim Schriner.”

Mosher will call on psychiatrist Peter R. Breggin to fill that gap in understanding. Breggin, a former Harvard Medical School faculty member, directs the International Center for the Study of Psychiatry and Psychology. He has written books and articles dealing with adverse medication effects, including a 1999 book on the effects of withdrawal from psychiatric drugs.

“I believe there is only one rational conclusion,” Breggin says in his evaluation. “Mr. Georgopulos underwent a withdrawal reaction from Xanax and Zoloft that led to his violent behavior.”

While experts long have known about serious withdrawal reactions involving drugs such as Xanax, which Breggin said is not approved for depression and should not have been prescribed, the body of knowledge about withdrawal from selected serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Zoloft is fairly new.

“As a result of the inability of any of the psychiatrists to explain why or how this could have happened to Peter Georgopulos, the district attorney was able to argue quite convincingly that the claim of psychosis was invented out of whole cloth,” Mosher said.

Mosher and Breggin point to episodes of violence while awaiting trial in the Hamilton County Jail — a period of time when Georgopulos had again stopped his medications — as further evidence of his discontinuation mania.

“When Mr. Georgopulos developed a psychotic reaction after the second time he withdrew from the same drugs,” Breggin said, “the issue should have loomed large and become the basis of his defense.”

If Nation grants a new trial, Mosher says, the evidence exists to justify a new outcome — that Georgopulos is not responsible for the killing by reason of insanity.

It’s a possibility that makes Schriner’s mother shudder.

“He needs to stay exactly where he’s at,” said Carolyn Schriner, who fears defense attorneys might win a reprieve that would send Georgopulos to a mental hospital and, ultimately, give him his freedom.

“He’s just caused a lot of pain for an awful lot of people,” she said. “And the worst part about doing this is it brings all of it back.”
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Contact James A. Gillaspy at 1-317-816-4434 or via e-mail at james.gillaspy@indystar.com
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