WINNSBORO, S.C. After spending close to half his life behind bars, 20-year-old Christopher Pittman finally made it into the witness chair to testify in a South Carolina courtroom.
He never took the stand at his trial more than four years ago, when a jury found him guilty of the shotgun murder of his grandparents when he was 12 and a judge sentenced him to 30 years in prison, letting others make the case that heavy doses of the antidepressant Zoloft clouded his judgment. But as the chain linking his ankles softly clinked today, Pittman shuffled up to take questions during a hearing over whether he should get a new trial.
The judge wouldn't let prosecutors review the chilling confession he gave hours after authorities found Joe and Joy Pittman dead in their beds in the home their grandson set on fire. Instead, Pittman talked about his trial attorneys and how he would have taken a plea deal if they had just given him more information.
Prosecutors during this week's hearing have denied any formal plea offer was made, but Pittman's lawyers have said they were considering a deal for him to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter and let the judge decide on a sentence from two to 30 years.
Pittman's said his chief attorneys civil lawyers who specialized in suing pharmaceutical companies told him they were convinced the jury would blame Zoloft and not him for the killings. He said they never told him jurors in South Carolina could both blame the Zoloft and find him guilty of murder.
"I wouldn't have had a choice," Pittman said when asked if he would have considered a plea deal if he thought the trial wasn't going in his favor. "I wasn't told even if Zoloft was a part in my crime, I still could be found guilty and I was looking at 30 years to life. With the plea bargain, I could have gotten a lot less."
Pittman's new attorneys are arguing he deserves a new trial because his former lawyers didn't do their jobs properly at trial and because they failed to fight hard enough to have him tried as a juvenile, where he could have only been behind bars until he turned 21. The murder conviction as an adult means Pittman cannot get parole for his 30-year sentence and won't get out of prison until he is 42.
Circuit Court Judge Roger Young heard the three days of testimony that wrapped up Friday afternoon and is expected to make a ruling in several months, after both sides sum up their cases in briefs. Pittman has already lost a couple of rounds of appeals with the South Carolina and U.S. Supreme Courts.
While Pittman's lawyers press the plea deal issue hard, prosecutor Barney Giese testified Friday that no formal deal was ever offered. He said the two- to 30-year deal was something the judge suggested to him and the defense and he would have been hard-pressed to agree because the crime was so heinous and seemed planned.
Pittman's grandparents were shot as they slept. He then set the home on fire and drove away with his dog in the family's SUV. It got stuck on a dirt road 20 miles away, and he told some hunters who found him that a man broke into their home, killed his grandparents, kidnapped him and only ran when the vehicle got stuck, according to police and Pittman's confession.
"It would have been very difficult for me to agree to voluntary manslaughter for that," Giese said.
While authorities say Pittman killed his grandparents because they paddled him for misbehaving on the bus, Pittman again said Friday that voices in his head told him to kill. He blames the Zoloft for the voices, agreeing with his experts who say the drug kept him from knowing right from wrong. Pfizer, which makes Zoloft, has always vigorously denied the charge.
Pittman was convicted of the murders and sentenced to the minimum punishment of 30 years in prison.
Pittman is more than a foot taller and nearly twice as heavy as he was during his first court appearance after his arrest in November 2001. The squeaky, barely audible voice that answered "yes sir" to a Family Court judge who ordered him held until his trial has now turned into a deep baritone with a little twang.
There were no new revelations in Friday's testimony. Pittman's voice was clear as his lawyers questioned him, but he started to mumble as prosecutors asked him about racial slurs he uttered, homemade weapons he made and threats to rape other inmates during his first years in juvenile prison. Pittman's lawyers later called a psychiatrist who testified Pittman could have been rehabilitated because he was so young.
Nine supporters and family members sat behind Pittman. He smiled at them as he entered the courtroom, and shyly grinned as a woman close to his age spent the morning break chatting with him from the other side of the rail.
Janet Sisk befriended the Pittman family after his arrest and visits him nearly every week at the adult prison Pittman was transferred to two years ago in Columbia.
She said Pittman is like a son to her and has been able to survive growing up in prison thanks to the support of others. She said he is optimistic he will get a new trial, but knows anything can happen.
"I always say Chris keeps his hope in his back pocket," Sisk said. "He's hopeful. but he can't get his hopes up too high because that would be too far to fall."