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December 20, 2007

Evolving images of a killer and the evolving Eighth Amendment

Pittman_chris_at_10 There are so many interesting facets of the Pittman case (first discussed here), which has now been brought to the Supreme Court.  This new National Law Journal article provides the basics and highlights the role of a law school clinic in bringing the case to the Supreme Court:

A group of University of Texas School of Law students has helped file a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court in hopes of getting a South Carolina teenager's sentence reviewed.  The petition, filed on Monday, asks the court to review the case of Christopher Pittman, who is serving a 30-year sentence without parole for murdering his grandparents when he was 12.  Five third-year law students from the school's Supreme Court Clinic in Austin teamed up with five public policy students and spent the semester working on the case.

Story_sentencingIn addition, as spotlighted in this post at Pharmalot, the Pittman case has already drawn plenty of attention from folks other than those concerned just with the operation of the criminal justice system:

[If the Supreme Court takes this case] another aspect is likely to get attention — Christopher Pittman was taking Zoloft at the time he used a shotgun to shoot his grandparents, and then set fire to their home in 2001.  During his trial four years later, his attorneys argued, unsuccessfully, that the rampage was heavily influenced by the antidepressant, which Pfizer has always denied....  Meanwhile, a [recent] Fox News program, Hannity’s America, ran a segment linking recent mass shootings by teenagers with antidepressants. The episode had its flaws — the reporter failed to include comment from anyone in pharma or at the FDA, and suggested a connection to the recent shooting at the Omaha shopping mall without offering any evidence. Nonetheless, these two items suggest the debate over the proper use of antidepressants won’t go away and, in fact, is likely to remain polarized for the foreseeable future.

Intake2While others may be primarily interested in the human and medical stories that surround this case, I am focused on legal issues concerning the interpretation and application of the Eighth Amendment in this (non-capital) context.  Of particular interest to me is how the Eighth Amendment is to be applied in non-capital cases in light of the Court's recent capital rulings in Roper and Atkins (and its forthcoming work in Baze).  Specifically, I wonder whether and how the legal concept of an "evolving national consensus" that was central in Roper and Atkins should be unpacked here.  Against this backdrop, I am especially intrigued by the different images of the defendant that can be in the mind's eye as one thinks about whether the sentence he received is unconstitutional because it would violate societal mores.  As a few shrewd commentors have already noted (and as the pictures in this post highlight) the evolving nature of a young man perhaps has already played a role in his fate, and could continue to play a role in the debate over this case.

December 20, 2007 at 09:57 AM | Permalink


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Let's assume that it offends some sense of justice to lock up a 12 year old for 30 years after he murders someone. The issue would then become what punishment would be the substitute. Clearly, the state could lock him up until he was 21. What about 30? But "justice" is not the only goal of punishment. Incapacitation is another. Letting all juvenile murders go when they're 30 is a prescription for a lot of preventable murders.

Maybe the solution is that states should have, for every juvenile murderer, opportunities to prove themselves via work, education etc. (Remember, the state cannot deprive them of the opportunity to be all they can be under Roper). Then they have to have meaningful opportunitities to be paroled if they jump through the right hoops. I don't pretend to know what the solution is. I do know that mandated releases of juvenile killers when they are 21, 25 or 30 is a dumb idea. I don't propose the above as a judicial solution, obviously.

Maybe the answer is that when you're 12 you can do things to ruin your life. 12 year olds get into accidents that confine them to wheelchairs etc. etc. Maybe killing someone is just that, something you do that ruins your life.

Posted by: federalist | Dec 20, 2007 10:24:28 AM

I think the need for a speedy trial is most fundamental and vital when talking about children who commit crimes. As I was saying in the other thread, when a 12 year old kills someone (or commits an otherwise serious crime), the state does all it can to delay the trial a few years until the cute 12 year old turns into a pimply, irritating, bratty, annoying looking teenager (all of whom look like stereotypical criminals).

Unless the defense for some reason stupidly seeks to continue the trial, the juvenile defendant should have a right to have the trial heard within at the most 6 months. Preferably less.

And yes, prosecutors delay these cases several years on purpose, for this very reason. Cynical but smart trial strategy.

Posted by: bruce | Dec 20, 2007 5:22:01 PM

Notably, the recent church killings in Colorado involved a shooter taking anti-anxiety drugs.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Dec 20, 2007 6:18:15 PM

Voodoo pharmacology is firmly ingrained in our culture, ever since the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Act in 1914.

The notion that drugs can make people do bad, evil things against their will is absolutely nuts, has never happened, and has no basis in non-government supported scientific literature (gov't needs to keep voodoo pharmacology alive to give purpose to the drug war.

Posted by: bruce | Dec 20, 2007 8:20:47 PM

Given the list of potential side effects from Zoloft(r) (generic name Sertaline) listed by the National Institutes of Health here http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/medmaster/a697048.html its definitely possible that Zoloft(r) could play a role in such killings. Anyone of the side effects listed in the red box warning could lead to such an action and hallucinations are another.

Obviously the advisability of putting children on medications designed for adults is a topic for another day - although it is at best questionable to give such powerful mind-altering drugs to a mind that is still developing. But the fact that the kid was on Zoloft(r) in the first place suggests that this is someone who already had signs of a serious mental illness (leaving aside there is quite a bit of doubt whether a child of 12 can really be accurately diagnosed with a major mental illness). Between age and mental issues, it does make one question on whether justice was really done in that case. Given the poor history of our justice system in dealing with people with serious mental illnesses, the answer is probably no.

Posted by: Zack | Dec 21, 2007 4:05:44 PM

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