Pittman's hope for shorter sentence a long shot, experts say

Christopher Pittman's hope for a shorter prison sentence dwindled Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his case, said his former attorney and a legal expert.

But the lawyer representing the Chester County teen in his civil lawsuit against the state said that case is moving forward.

Pittman, 19, killed his grandparents when he was 12 years old. He was tried as an adult and convicted of two counts of murder in 2005. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison. His conviction was upheld in June by the state Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his case Monday.

But Pittman filed a civil lawsuit in September alleging that his attorneys were "ineffective for misadvising me not to accept the guilty plea for ten (10) yrs., because I would be acquitted at trial." The court papers do not specify the charge to which Pittman would have pleaded guilty.

Pittman is being represented in this case by Columbia attorney John D. "Jay" Elliott, who said Monday that he's looking into several questions about Pittman's defense counsel, including the performance of his trial attorneys.

"If his trial counsel performed nine out of 10 functions, shall we say, competently, but fell short on the tenth, then indeed Chris would have been deprived of the effective assistance of counsel nonetheless and might deserve a new trial," he said.

But that case is a "long shot," said Kenneth Gaines, a University of South Carolina law professor.

"It's always an uphill battle to show that your lawyer messed up," Gaines said. "Even if you show that he was ineffective, you've got to show ... that it prejudiced your case. So it's a stiff burden."

In his lawsuit against the state, Pittman asks the court for one of four outcomes:

• His sentence be thrown out, and he get released from prison;

• His sentence be lessened;

• He be resentenced as a youthful offender;

• Or he receive a new trial.

Appeals and civil lawsuits "are frequently long shots," said Yale Zamore, the Chester County public defender who represented Pittman until he removed himself from the case in 2004 when Pittman had other attorneys working on his case.

A new trial doesn't guarantee any better results. The outcome could be even be more severe than the original sentence.

"Sometimes they end up better off, sometimes not," Zamore said of convicts in these kinds of lawsuits. "They have to be willing to take that risk."

If the lawsuit is unsuccessful, about the only option remaining for Pittman is a complaint that the government is holding him illegally, Gaines said. But that also would be a tough battle.

Zamore also said taking the case to federal court would be tough.

"The farther along you get, it's a difficult situation," Zamore said. "The whole philosophy of the system is to encourage finality in judgment."