The Zoloft Defense?

Ever heard of the “Zoloft Defense?” It’s an argument a defendant might employ that basically boils down to “the drugs made me do it.” The Zoloft Defense usually makes an appearance when a defendant is charged with some sort of violent crime like battery or murder. Before I get into what I think about this defense strategy, let’s be sure we understand the drug itself.

Zoloft is an anti-depressant/anti-anxiety manufactured by Pfizer. It belongs to a class of anti-depressants called selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) which, among other things, may cause suicidal feelings. According to Drugs.com, you might also have to be on the lookout for mood or behavior changes, anxiety, panic attacks, feeling impulsive, irritable, agitated, hostile, aggressive, restless, hyperactive (mentally or physically),  and more depressed. Sheesh. FYI, other SSRIs include Paxil and Prozac.

In 2001, 12 year old Christopher Pittman tried to use the Zoloft Defense when he was tried for killing his grandparents in the most horrible way: he walked into their bedroom, shot them while they were asleep and then burned down their Chester, SC house with their bodies still inside. [As an aside, Pittman left with the car, the dog and some money. He was found by some hunters the next day, wandering the woods, and said he’d been kidnapped by a black man who had slain his parents and set their house ablaze, but that he had been able to escape. Ain’t that about a bitch?]
The jury was believed that Pittman’s mental state was affected by the drugs but not enough to compel him to kill and in 2005 he was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Attempts at appeal by his attorneys, as recent as 2008, have failed.

We might not remember the name Seung-Hui Cho but we all remember the tragedy at Virginia Tech in 2007. Cho never made it to trial for killing 32 people and wounding 25 others because he committed suicide before the police could reach him. Cho was not on Zoloft, but he was prescribed Prozac, a similar medication. There is no proof that he ever filled a prescription or took the medication, though. Had he made it to trial, his attorneys might have presented the Zoloft Defense (or a form thereof) as an option.

In an odd use of the Zoloft Defense, Long Island man Brandon Hampson‘s attorneys will argue that after quitting Zoloft, Hampson assaulted his girlfriend. The defense will put an expert witness on the stand, a psychiatrist, in an attempt to prove that withdrawal from the drug caused their client to become violent even though he stopped taking the pills days before the attack. A spokesperson for the Nassau District Attorney’s office voiced the DA’s objection to the use of the Zoloft Defense because the “expert’s opinion lacks any scientific credibility and is completely unsubstantiated from a pharmaceutical standpoint.” I agree.

Even if the Zoloft Defense has been employed before in other jurisdictions, they have no precedent over the Nassau Court (disclosure: I haven’t researched the precedent so it’s possible this issue could’ve arisen and have authority over the court). And where those decisions might influence courts of other jurisdictions, they don’t squarely apply. In the Pittman case, for instance, the attorneys argued that the drugs made him do it. In the Hampson case, the attorneys would be arguing that going off the drug made him do it. According to the Federal Rules of Evidence, in order to qualify as an expert witness…

may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if (1) the testimony is based upon sufficient facts or data, (2) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods, and (3) the witness has applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case.

Their expert better get on the stand and cite all kinds of independent pharma studies, statistics and examples in order to be taken seriously. The trial is set to begin on Sept. 8th so I’ll be on the look out.

The issue of prescription drugs and criminal prosecutions is a difficult one. Not only do you have the perpetrator on the hook, but by extension the pharma companies face liability as well. It’s interesting to note that companies like Eli Lilly, GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer have put together “prosecutor’s manuals” containing medical and legal information to help keep the Zoloft Defense and the like out of the courtroom altogether.

On a related note, all of this research made me recall a course I took in undergrad called Philosophy of Law (which could be blamed credited for my foray into law school). We discussed a book called Nightmare: A Schizophrenia Narrative by Wendell Williamson, a UNC Law student who killed two and injured two others on a shooting spree across the street from the campus in 1995. Williamson has been in a mental institution since and despite repeate requests to be released he remains institutionalized. He and his doctors believe that his schizophrenia (and the voices that urged him to kill) is under control when Williamson stays on his medication. How can we be sure he will stay on his meds? Since no one can answer that question for sure, Williamson’s requests for day passes and extended freedoms continue to be denied. [I advise you to read the book. It’s VERY interesting and a quick read. Perhaps I’ll write about it here later on.]

I wonder, who is responsible when it comes to the mentally ill and taking medication? Do we blame the pharmaceutical companies when we think being ON the meds cause a person to act violently? Should offenders like Pittman be dealt with more leniently when they’re actions could possibly be a result of a chemically altered mind-state? Who do we blame if we believe being OFF the meds caused a person to act violently? Is Pfizer still on the hook for Hampson’s alleged withdrawal symptoms? Would Williamson be held accountable for failure to adhere to doctor’s orders if he were to quit his meds and become violent again? These are all questions I cannot answer at present but think about often. I invite you to think about the various issues raised and comment if compelled.

Sources: NYT; Wikipedia: Peter Breggin; Drugs.com; 
Zoloft.com; State of VA (VATech Review Panel); Newsweek
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8 Comments

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