COLUMBIA -- Attorneys have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case of a teen sentenced to 30 years in prison for killing his grandparents when he was 12, arguing that the sentence is cruel.
Christopher Pittman used a shotgun to shoot his grandparents Joe and Joy Pittman, and then set fire to their home in 2001. During his trial four years later, Pittman's attorneys unsuccessfully argued the slayings were influenced by the antidepressant Zoloft -- a charge the maker of the drug vigorously denied.
In the brief submitted to the high court late Monday, attorneys from the University of Texas School of Law argued that the 30-year sentence violates Christopher Pittman's Eighth Amendment protection from cruel and unusual punishment.
Such a lengthy sentence is "unconstitutionally disproportionate as applied to a 12-year-old child," according a copy of the petition provided by the Juvenile Justice Foundation. It said Pittman "is the nation's only inmate serving such a harsh sentence for an offense committed at such a young age."
The brief argues that 25 states and the District of Columbia set the minimum age at which a juvenile may be tried as an adult above 12, so that in half the nation, Pittman could not have been tried as adult and could never have been sentenced to 30 years in prison.
The attorneys also contend that in the 24 states other than South Carolina where 12-year-olds may be tried as adults, they have not been able to find any sentence as lengthy as the one Pittman received. They looked at several other violent crimes involving 12-year-old offenders, including an Ohio boy who killed two relatives with a shotgun and who was sentenced to a juvenile facility until he is 21.
"Every other offender was adjudicated and sentenced in a humane manner consistent with his tender years," the brief says.
Each year, about 200,000 defendants under 18 are sent to the adult system, according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice. Most end up there because of state laws that automatically define them as adults, due to their age or offense. Those numbers escalated in the 1990s as juvenile crime soared and legislators responded, with 48 states making it easier to transfer kids into criminal court, according to the center.
The South Carolina Supreme Court denied Pittman's first appeal in July. Pittman also has filed a civil lawsuit against the state, asking that his sentence be thrown out because his lawyers were ineffective, had advised him not to take a plea deal for a 10-year prison sentence and did not advise him of his rights.
Janet Sisk, director of the Charlotte-based Juvenile Justice Foundation, said the latest appeal might represent Pittman's best chance at emerging from prison before he is a middle-aged man.
"If he's held there until he's 42 years old, what is that child going to be able to do when he gets out?" said Sisk, who has tracked Pittman's case for years and worked on the appeal. "He's been in prison half as long as he's lived. ... How is he going to cope on the outside?"
Sisk, who along with a handful of other supporters visits Pittman each week in a South Carolina prison, said this may be among his last legal moves. "I've got my fingers crossed," she said. "I hope that this is the answer for that child."
Zoloft is the most widely prescribed antidepressant in the United States, with 32.7 million prescriptions written in 2003. In 2004, the Food and Drug Administration ordered Zoloft and other antidepressants to carry "black box" warnings -- the government's strongest warning short of a ban -- about an increased risk of suicidal behavior in children.