02/20/05 — Hope: The story of a young killer

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Hope: The story of a young killer

Stone walls do not a prison make,

Nor iron bars a cage;

Minds innocent and quiet take

That for an hermitage;

If I have freedom in my love,

And in my soul am free,

Angels alone that soar above

Enjoy such liberty.

—Richard Lovelace

So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

—John 8:36


After he was convicted of two murders, Christopher Pittman seemed at long last to have found a way to endure life.

Christopher is the 15-year-old boy who was convicted last week of killing his grandparents when he was 12. The case got widespread attention not just because of the bizarre nature of the killings, and of the young age of the killer, but also because of the defense arguments that were used by Christopher’s lawyers.

He shot his grandparents, Joe and Joy Pittman, with a shotgun as they lay in their bed. His lawyers claimed that the use of the antidepressant drug Zoloft had robbed him of his ability to distinguish between right and wrong.

The jury did not believe that, and it convicted him of two counts of murder.

Some of Christopher’s family, including his father whose parents he killed, begged Judge Danny Pieper for leniency. His life has been a crucible.

Shortly after he was born, Chris’s mother abandoned him and his sister and father. The father, Joe Pittman Jr., was a military man and was often overseas. Chris was a baby when his father went to the first Gulf war. He and his sister, who is two years older, were passed from one relative to another.

When his father was home, he disciplined the boy in ways that are mindful of military discipline. Sometimes Chris would have to do pushups and hold in the up position. If he failed, he would have to start over. Sometimes he would have to run down the street to a stop sign and memorize some words written on it. If he failed, he had to do it over.

Sometimes he was paddled with a wooden paddle or whipped with a belt.

He seldom if ever saw his mother before he was 12, and he longed for his mother and father to be together. His father married twice more, but those marriages failed, too.

At 12, Chris was living with his father and sister, Danielle, in Florida. Their mother moved to their town, rented a mobile home, and called for Chris and Danielle to visit her. She told them that she hoped to get back with their father.

They visited her several times. Then on one visit she came to the door and told them they could not come in. She said they could never see her again.

Chris became more depressed. He got in trouble by running away. He threatened suicide.

The family decided that he should move in with his maternal grandparents in Chester County, S.C. That was around the first of November 2001.

Chris was a difficult child. He was seeing counselors and was taking Zoloft and another anti-depressant, Paxil.

Thanksgiving, Chris and Danielle went home to be with their father. Danielle later said that during the visit Chris was jumpy and that he talked faster than usual.

Less than a week later, back in Chester, his grandparents decided to take Chris to choir practice at their church on Wednesday night, Nov. 28.

Vicky Phillips, the pianist, later testified that Chris was kicking her stool and she turned around and asked him to stop. One psychologist said he had an emotional condition that compels its victims to move their legs.

Chris’s grandfather took him outside to scold him. Ms. Phillips said that when the boy came back in, he had an angry look — “a look I’d never seen before.”

That night, after his grandparents went to bed, Chris sneaked into their bedroom with a shotgun and shot them.

Then he used candles, paper and lighter fluid to set a fire that would burn the house, and he drove away with his dog Trixie in his grandparents’ car. He was found when he got the car stuck in a neighboring county.

In custody, Chris told officers that his grandfather had hit him with the paddle and had threatened to send him back to Florida. He said his grandparents deserved to die.

While he was in custody, he wrote to his father and said he took all his troubles “out on my grandparents, who I loved very much ... When I was lying in my bed that night, I couldn’t sleep because my voice in my head kept echoing through my mind, telling me to kill them.”

Judge Pieper apparently was moved by the pleas of Chris’s relatives. He sentenced the boy to 30 years, the minimum possible active sentence, and ordered that the two sentences be served at the same time. Chris could be freed when he is in his 40s.

Chris hung his head when the sentence was read. He was prepared. When asked for his own comment before sentencing, he had said, “I know it’s in the hands of God. Whatever he decides on, that’s what it’s going to be.”

Peace at last?

Published in Editorials on February 20, 2005 12:05 AM