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The Herald Online
Attorney hopes to use document in Pittman double-murder case
One patient who was prescribed Zoloft during a company sponsored clinical trial in the 1980s was taken off the antidepressant after developing thoughts of killing himself and others, according to a drug company document made public last week.
The document will be available to attorneys for Christopher Pittman, the 15-year-old who is charged with the November 2001 murders of his grandparents in Chester County. Pittman’s defense will center on a claim that an adverse reaction to Zoloft caused him to become violent and homicidal.
The document, called a drug experience report, was given to The Herald by one of Pittman’s attorneys after a California judge declared that the document is no longer protected by secrecy laws.
The report was filed with the Food and Drug Administration in August 1983 by Pfizer, the maker of Zoloft. The portion of the report that has been available to the public for 21 years states that the patient was taken off the drug because of treatment failure and nausea, anorexia and dysuria, or painful urination.
But medical investigator Dr. Joseph Mendels provided another reason when he withdrew the patient from the study, according to the document.
The patient “began to verbalize feelings of killing other people and then himself,” a handwritten note from Mendels states.
A Pfizer spokesman said the document does not prove that Zoloft caused such thoughts. It is simply an assessment by one doctor of one patient.
“This is anecdotal patient information,” said Bryant Haskins from the company’s New York office. “And this information is not relevant to this case.”
Karen Barth Menzies, one of Pittman’s attorneys, disagreed. She used the document in a recent hearing in Charleston to convince Judge Daniel Pieper to force Pfizer to make other documents available to defense lawyers. She said these documents will prove that the company has known for years that Zoloft can cause people to become violent.
“When you have people who became violent and homicidal on the drug and it goes away when it’s stopped, like happened with Christopher, then I think it’s highly relevant,” said Barth Menzies, a Los Angeles attorney who specializes in antidepressant cases.
Pittman is charged with killing Joe Frank Pittman and Joy Roberts Pittman on Nov. 28, 2001. Police say he shot his grandparents while they were in bed and then set their Chester County home on fire before fleeing in a family vehicle. He was 12.
He had been on a five-week regimen of antidepressants, first Paxil then Zoloft, before the killings. Doctors had diagnosed him as being mildly depressed.
In addition to the drug experience report, the defense team will have at their disposal 28 Pfizer documents discovered during civil cases unrelated to Pittman’s ordeal. The company also must search its database for other documents related to homicide, hostility and violence, as well as turn over patient data from nine clinical trials performed on children, Pieper ordered.
The judge will have to rule later as to whether any of these documents can be used as evidence in the case. Until then, the records will remain secret.
A California state judge ruled Monday that Pfizer’s interest in keeping secret a number of documents in a case there does not outweigh the right of public access to court records. Two of the documents in that case, involving the suicide of a teenager, are among those requested by Pittman’s lawyers.
One of those is the 1983 report. The other is the “Zoloft Prosecutors’ Manual,” a guide for criminal prosecutors facing what the company calls a “Zoloft defense.” Barth Menzies’ firm, Baum Hedlund, is also involved in the California case and provided the manual to The Herald.
The company-created playbook spells out what such defenses must show in order to be successful: that the drug can cause people to become violent and that the drug caused a specific person to become violent.
According to the manual, neither point can be proven because no scientific evidence exists linking the drug to violent behavior.
“There is no study that provides credible scientific support to the allegation that Zoloft can cause a person to become violent toward others,” it states.
Haskins, the company spokes-man, said all clinical analysis done on Zoloft is public record. The drug, classified as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, was introduced on the U.S. market to treat depression in 1992. Since then, more than 250 million prescriptions for Zoloft have been written, Haskins said.
“It’s been around for a long time, and there is a lot of safety data,” Haskins said. “(But) there is no scientific information anywhere that shows Zoloft causes violent behavior.”
Barth Menzies said the drug company’s own documents will more than prove that is not true.
“We believe they show Pfizer itself is very aware that Zoloft can cause violent behavior,” she said. “There are numerous reports of people taking Zoloft and becoming homicidal and that it was drug related.”
As for convincing a jury that Zoloft caused Pittman specifically to become homicidal, Barth Menzies said that will come down to a battle of the experts.
The trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 31 in Charleston. Judge Pieper is mulling a defense motion to send the case back to juvenile court. If Pittman is found guilty as an adult, he faces a sentence of up to life in prison.
Pittman is still being held in a Columbia detention center, although the judge set his bond at $175,000 on Thursday.
Jason Cato • 329-4071