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SC's Pittman, who killed grandparents in 2001, pleads guilty

Christopher Pittman stood in court Thursday at age 21 - now well over 6 feet tall - with a choice.

He could roll the dice at a new trial and hope to be acquitted of killing his grandparents in 2001, when he was 12. Doing so, he would face the possibility of life in prison if he lost a double-murder trial after blaming anti-depressants for the crime - as he had in 2005.

Or he could agree to a plea bargain.

A deal, Pittman had already said after successfully suing his trial lawyers from the 2005 trial claiming they botched the case, that he would have taken in the first place if it had been offered.

Circuit Court Judge Ernest Kinard asked Pittman if he had any questions.

"No sir," said Pittman, standing next to the two lawyers who helped overturn his earlier conviction for the murders of Joe and Joy Pittman at their rural Chester County home.

Kinard put it bluntly: "It looks like you have had nine years to think this over."

Pittman took the deal.

The negotiated plea deal to two counts of voluntary manslaughter came with a 25-year prison sentence. Pittman will be eligible for parole early in 2023.

Pittman was tried as an adult in Charleston in 2005, and sentenced as an adult Thursday. His lawyers unsuccessfully tried for years to keep the case in Family Court, where Pittman would not have faced prison after turning 21, even if convicted.

Pittman's age - not the alleged "involuntary intoxication" from the Zoloft drug that Pittman's trial lawyers claimed was behind the killing - was the basis for offering the plea deal, prosecutors said Thursday.

"The facts of this case are a premeditated murder," said Sixth Circuit Solicitor Doug Barfield. "But this defendant was 12 years old at the time of the crime. Age was always a factor in this case from the first day.

"We are satisfied that this was the right solution.'

John Meadors, one of the prosecutors who successfully convicted Pittman in 2005, told the judge that police and prosecutors believed the plea deal was "the appropriate thing to do.

"I thought today about what Joe and Joy Pittman would want," said Meadors, a deputy solicitor in Richland County. "And probably, they would want this."

Pittman only answered questions from the judge and did not say why he shot Joe and Joy Pittman in the head, burned down their house to cover up the crime, and told police he was kidnapped by a black man.

None of Pittman's family was present in court.

'In your best interest...'

Delnora Duprey, his maternal grandmother, said in a telephone interview from her home in Florida Thursday that she has "mixed emotions" about her grandson's accepting responsibility for the brutal crimes for the first time.

Duprey continues to blame Pittman's reaction to Zoloft for the killings.

"We are happy to have some closure, but naturally we had hoped he would get to come home after it was all over," she said. "He is remorseful. He loved his grandparents.

"Without the drugs, this never would have happened."

After appeals from the 2005 convictions failed, Pittman sued his trial lawyers, claiming that he wasn't told that - even if jurors believed Zoloft caused the killings - he could still be convicted.

In July, a judge ruled his trial lawyers didn't aggressively seek a plea deal, and did not tell a court-appointed guardian about a potential plea.

The guardian, Chester lawyer Milton Hamilton, testified in the civil trial he would have advised Pittman to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter.

After the plea deal was accepted by the judge on Thursday, Hamilton shook Pittman's hand and told him, "It is in your best interest."

Pittman then left the courtroom and was taken back to the Broad River Correctional Institution in Columbia.

'I really didn't care then'

The killings were brutal, prosecutors said, and the cover-up showed a plan that demanded that the then-12-year-old Pittman be tried as an adult.

Pittman had come to live with his grandparents just weeks before the crime, having had behavior problems in Florida - including running away from school and placement in a juvenile facility.

In late November 2001, he was disciplined by his grandparents after getting in trouble on the school bus. He loaded a shotgun with four shells on Nov. 28, 2001, waited for them to go to sleep, then shot both of them.

"I aimed at the bed and shot four times, " Pittman told police the next day. "I really didn't care then."

To cover up the crime, prosecutors said, Pittman lit three candles in different rooms, and surrounded the candles with paper to spread the flames.

He then took $33 from his grandmother's purse and rolls of change from atop the same gun cabinet from which he had taken the shotgun he used to shoot Joe Pittman in the mouth and Joy Pittman in the back of the head.

Pittman fled with other guns he took from the home in his grandparents' Nissan Pathfinder - west to Cherokee County. He was found by hunters, who then called police.

Pittman told police a story about his grandparents' being shot by a black intruder. He claimed he intruder kidnapped him before he escaped. His story changed after more police interviews, and he was charged with murder.

He has been in jail ever since, with the exception of a few days during the trial when he was released on bond.

'The case is done'

Meadors and Fifth Circuit Solicitor Barney Giese tried Pittman in 2005 after former Chester prosecutor John Justice became ill.

On Thursday, they said Pittman's guilty plea to such a heinous crime that was covered up refuted Pittman's attorneys' strategy that the drugs caused the shootings and that Pittman was too young to act as an adult.

"This is a vindication of everything that the police, the prosecutors, all of us did from the beginning," Giese said. "This case was handled the right way in the right place.

"This was an adult crime."

The state Attorney General's Office, which was fighting the overturned convictions and was preparing an appeal to the state Supreme Court, agreed to the deal as well, said Creighton Waters, the assistant attorney general in court Thursday.

The plea deal includes an agreement that Pittman would not appeal the manslaughter convictions and could not change his mind, Judge Kinard and Pittman's lawyers said.

"This is it - the criminal case is over," Pittman's lead lawyer, Seth Farber of New York, said after the hearing. "He has pleaded guilty and can't appeal.

"The case is done."

The plea ends more than nine years of legal wrangling and national debate over how Pittman should be prosecuted because of his age and the effects of the prescribed medication on children.

Pittman had defenders across the country - including his trial lawyers - who were outraged that such a powerful drug had been prescribed to a child and that prosecutors had tried Pittman as an adult.

There were vigils on his behalf - even billboards along highways with Pittman's picture as a young child, advocating "Justice for Christopher."

The 2005 trial was moved to Charleston because pre-trial publicity attracted national coverage - including a live broadcast on CourtTV.

'Sad day for justice'

Thursday's 25-year sentence stunned Andy Vickery, the Texas lawyer who specializes in civil cases against drug companies. He was Pittman's attorney during the 2005 trial, and it was his strategy that was rebuked when the judge in July ordered the convictions overturned.

Vickery remains convinced the killings were triggered by Zoloft. He said prosecuting a 12-year-old as an adult is "fundamentally unfair."

Still, Vickery said, Pittman chose to plead guilty as an adult Thursday.

"This sentence is exactly the kind of thing I feared the most," Vickery said in a telephone interview. "South Carolina chose to treat this child as an adult. This is a sad day for justice in South Carolina.

"It is a sad ending to a sad story."

But Barfield, the chief prosecutor for Chester, Lancaster and Fairfield counties, said the convictions will force Pittman to spend at least 12 more years in prison, having already served nine years.

The decision to seek to try Pittman as an adult, and the ruling by a Family Court judge to force that adult trial, Barfield said, means Pittman has to pay an adult penalty for a crime almost unmatched in its brutality and the scope of the cover-up.

"If Christopher Pittman was tried as a juvenile, he would be a free man today," Barfield said. "He is 21 years old.

"He left today, after pleading guilty, to go back to prison, after admitting his guilt in these violent, terrible deaths."

'Hard one to understand'

The killings of Joy and Joe Pittman shocked largely rural western Chester County.

The couple were generous people who had dropped all they were doing to go to Florida and bring their grandson to live with them after he got in trouble, said close friend Jesse Carter.

"They wanted to do all they could to help that boy straighten his life out," said Carter, who attended the same church as the Pittmans and knew Christopher Pittman during the short time before the killings.

The 25-year sentence Pittman agreed to Thursday is a tough one, Carter said, because Joy and Joe Pittman were murdered - and "killing is never right."

But, he said, there is little doubt the medications affected Pittman's thinking and actions.

"They were a fine couple and they didn't deserve to die," Carter said. "But if Chris can get out and keep himself clear and clean of the law, he will be a young man still. If he shows remorse that will be a big step.

"This was a hard one for everybody to try and understand. It still is."