Pharmacologist testifies that drugs may have led to pipe bomb killings — (Pittsburgh Live)

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Pittsburgh Live


Wednesday, May 22, 2002

PITTSBURGH – A pharmacologist from Chicago, Ill., testified at the sentencing hearing of a Bullskin Township man who used a pipe bomb to kill his pregnant ex-girlfriend and her daughter on New Year’s Day 1999.

Dr. James O’Donnell, a board-certified pharmacologist, pharmacist and nutritionist, told the federal jury, which will decide between a sentence of death or life without parole, that Joseph P. Minerd could have been suffering from an adverse drug reaction in the months leading up to the fire and explosion that killed Deana Mitts and her 3-year-old daughter, Kayla.

Although O’Donnell never examined or even talked to Minerd regarding his condition, he reviewed medical records, prescription records and other documentation pertinent to the case. He told the jury that Minerd was prescribed the anti-depressants Zoloft and Trazadone at various intervals between October 1997 and October 1998 as treatment for depression.

Zoloft is a “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor,” which is often prescribed to patients suffering from depression. Trazadone is often prescribed in addition to Zoloft because side-effects of Zoloft sometimes include insomnia, tremors and hyper-agitation, and Trazadone has a sedative effect.

Other side-effects of these drugs include diarrhea, constipation, worsening tremors, heart palpitations, sexual dysfunction that can result in impotence and psychiatric toxicities such as hallucinations and an increase in suicidal or homicidal tendencies.

Although O’Donnell pointed out that the more severe of these side-effects are rare to patients taking these drugs, the possibility of experiencing these symptoms has been found to be more frequent in patients that abruptly stop taking the medication. However, when Minerd was prescribed the drugs, serious psychiatric side-effects of immediate discontinuation were thought to be rare. But since 2001, they are thought to be more frequent, and doctors have been warned that patients should be weaned off the drug gradually.

“It’s just like a chronic alcoholic. If they stop abruptly, they’re going to start shaking and experience withdrawal symptoms,” said O’Donnell.

According to his medical records, Minerd received his last prescription for Zoloft and Trazadone – a 30-day supply – in October 1998, and O’Donnell expects that he took the drugs up until early November.

Generally, O’Donnell said the effects of stopping the medication lasts a few weeks on average, but depending on the individual, it could last longer. He believes Minerd abruptly stopping the medication could have caused the chemistry of his brain to alter and may have led to the crime.

“It helps explain it,” said O’Donnell.

O’Donnell added that at least Zoloft is not recommended for individuals who have suffered a significant head injury like the one Minerd may have suffered after falling from a scaffolding at his home in July of 1997.

Dr. Srini Gobindan, a neurologist from Wheeling, W.Va., was also called late in the day to testify regarding Minerd’s head injury. He examined a Single Proton Emission Computerized Topography (SPECT) Scan taken of Minerd’s brain in February 2002.

According to Gobindan, a normal scan would show each side of the brain virtually the same. However, Minerd’s scan indicated an alteration and decrease in blood flow in the left frontal area of his brain.

Gobindan will continue his testimony into the possible causes of such an injury today.

The defense also offered several witnesses from the Allegheny County Jail and the Northern Regional Jail in Moundsville, W.Va., where Minerd has been housed since his arrest in December 1999.

According to officers from both facilities, Minerd has been a model inmate. He has never been disciplined for breaking any rules or regulations, has worked in the kitchenette and laundry at the county jail, volunteered to assist juvenile prisoners’ school and recreation programs and counseled younger inmates.

“I had no trouble with him. He was a model prisoner,” said Richard Pfeiffer, an escort officer with the Allegheny County Jail. He added that Minerd is always respectful and helpful of officers and has never had to be told twice to do something.

In addition, Minerd’s niece and nephew testified to how important it would be to them that their uncle get life rather than a sentence of death.

James Minerd Jr. testified that his uncle was always there for him when he was a child and now that he is an adult. He said he will continue to visit him if he is given life without the possibility of parole because it’s the least he can do.

“He always took the time to help me, so I would take the time,” said James Minerd Jr.

Minerd’s niece April Golden, who recently gave birth to twin boys, wants her sons to have the chance to get to know her uncle even if it has to be through pictures, cards and the telephone.

An emotional Golden told the jury, “My kids would never get the chance to know their uncle (if he is sentenced to death), just like I never knew my grandfather.”

As Golden left the stand to return to her seat. she looked at her uncle and mouthed the words, “I love you.”

Testimony in the sentencing hearing resumes at 9 a.m. today.

Amy Fauth can be reached at

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