On an icy morning in Chester five years ago, a national spectacle ended when South Carolina’s child killer pleaded guilty without fanfare and went to prison until 2023.
There were no cameras in court. No satellite TV trucks. No Larry King and Court TV and no child advocates railing against prosecuting a 12-year-old kid as an adult for murder.
Since that cold December day in 2010, Christopher Pittman has not made the news. He’s just another inmate who killed his sleeping grandparents with a shotgun.
Paternal grandparents Joe and Joy Pittman brought Christopher to Chester County to start over in 2001 after his birth mother abandoned him and his father disciplined him for behaving badly.
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On Nov. 29, 2001, Christopher’s grandfather paddled him after a school bus fight the day before. During a confrontation at church, Christopher was unruly and hostile toward his grandparents.
Christopher, on prescribed but controversial antidepressants, waited for his grandparents to go to sleep, stole his grandfather’s shotgun from a cabinet, and killed them as they slept in their beds.
Then Christopher set the house on fire, stole the family’s truck and fled.
When caught in Cherokee County, Christopher blamed the crime on a black criminal who did not exist, then he confessed.
It took nine years, two trials and an overturned verdict, but it ended five years ago when Pittman pleaded guilty to two counts of voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 25 years.
Pittman’s defense said the prescribed drugs pushed him to murder. Cops and prosecutors say he was a violent, hateful kid with access to guns, so he used them.
Pittman, now 26, sleeps with a roommate in a cell in a prison in Allendale and waits for 2023. That is when he will be eligible for release after more than 20 years in prison after being the youngest-ever killer convicted as an adult in South Carolina.
“He’s been a model inmate, but there is no early release for Christopher,” said Delnora Duprey, Pittman’s maternal grandmother who lives in Florida. “There is no time off for good behavior for manslaughter – although it would be nice. He has seven more long years.”
Pittman works on the prison horticultural crew. Like the prison plants, he grew up in jail.
“He’s a highly intelligent, fine, sweet young man,” said Duprey, who visits the prison often. “He’s been in jail for 14 years. He’s my hero.”
Duprey and child advocates rallied to Pittman’s defense soon after the prescription drugs were revealed, saying the anti-depressants meant for adults were to blame and that the state was bloodthirsty to charge a child with murder when a 12-year-old’s brain is not fully developed.
The killing and the court battles were news across America.
Texas civil lawyers specializing in fights against drug companies took on the criminal trial, claiming Paxil and Zoloft were to blame for the killings.
Prosecutors blamed meanness and a kid who was disciplined by his grandparents. Only an adult-thinking criminal could plot, plan, and pull off such a horrible set of crimes, police and prosecutors said.
After his arrest, Pittman was caught making a shank in juvenile jail. It was one of more than two dozen disciplinary infractions while incarcerated. His grandmother said it was the drugs still at work and that after Christopher was taken off medications, he changed for the better.
But it was too late.
Pittman was convicted as an adult in 2005 in a trial in Charleston that was broadcast live nationwide. He was sentenced to 30 years, the maximum for a juvenile sentenced for murder.
National TV did specials. The U.S. and South Carolina supreme courts declined to overturn the verdict based on Pittman’s age.
In 2010, the verdict was overturned after a civil trial where Pittman sued his defense trial lawyers, because the trial lawyers never told Pittman’s court-appointed guardian – Chester lawyer Milton Hamilton – that there were plea negotiations going on.
A plea deal for manslaughter could have resulted in anywhere from two to 30 years in prison. Some believed Pittman would have gotten 10 years if he took the deal. He would have been out of prison today if a deal had been struck before the 2005 trial.
The trial lawyers did not want a deal.
Hamilton testified in the civil trial that, as the court-appointed guardian, he would have advised Pittman to take the manslaughter plea deal despite the trial lawyers’ belief that Pittman would walk.
Hamilton, still a lawyer in Chester, said the trial lawyers “made decisions without ever discussing it with me,” which was a violation of Pittman’s rights as a juvenile. Because of Pittman’s age, Hamilton as the court-appointed guardian had one role – look out for Pittman. Hamilton’s job was not to look out for the lawyers who had hoped for civil suits after a not-guilty verdict. Hamilton was not on the side of the prosecutors who wanted maximum punishment.
His only job was to protect Christopher Pittman, who, by all accounts, no matter the reason, was a killer.
“Every other day at least I was asking if there was plea negotiations and was told no,” Hamilton remembers of the trial 10 years ago.
The civil trial showed the judge, prosecutors and trial lawyers did discuss plea deals. The criminal conviction was tossed. A new trial was ordered but Pittman quickly took a plea deal to voluntary manslaughter and five years ago was sentenced to 25 years.
“It was a terrible situation – a terrible crime,” Hamilton said.
‘He was a child’
In the years since 2010, there has been almost nobody asking anything about Pittman.
“It has been three years, more, since anyone even brought it up,” Hamilton said.
The case was important in 2001 when it happened, and important in 2005 at trial in Charleston, and important in 2010 when overturned and Pittman pleaded guilty, Hamilton said. It is important today because it shook Chester, and the “awful crimes” were committed by a child just 12 years old, Hamilton said.
It remains important to Delnora Duprey, who said her grandson has already spent much of his life in prison, and she said she still believes his prescribed drugs pushed him to double murder.
“He was a child,” Duprey said. “He was 12 years old. Why would he kill the two people he loved the most in the whole world?”
Duprey drives from Florida when she can to visit her grandson. The trip takes six hours. She says it is worth every minute.
Pittman is not eligible for parole, but if he has no prison problems in the next seven years he will “max out” at 85 percent of his 25-year sentence in February 2023, said Pete O’Boyle, a spokesman for the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.
The grandmother and the grandson wait for 2023, when Christopher Pittman, who will have spent 22 of his 34 years in prison, will be released into a world that he has not seen since he killed his grandparents at age 12.