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Pardoning Pittman

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Christopher Pittman got 30 years for shooting his grandparents in November 2001. That might seem like a puny sentence for a double murder until one considers how puny the perpetrator was: about five feet tall. But then that is about average for a sixth-grader.

Why Pittman snapped is anyone's guess. Maybe it was the frequent whippings he got from his father, or his mother's tendency to disappear for years at a time. When he was 12, he had a nervous breakdown, which is when he started taking Paxil. That is also when he moved from the family home in Oxford, Florida to live with his grandparents in Chester, South Carolina.

Joe and Joy Pittman had always been a source of warmth and stability in his life. So it isn't clear why he walked into their bedroom a few weeks later, flipped on the lights and shot his grandfather -- whom he grew up calling "Pop-pop" -- through the mouth and his grandmother ("Nanna") through the back of the head.

But no one was interested in why Pittman did what he did. More than three years passed before he went to trial. By then, in 2005, jurors saw not a child but a 6-foot-tall young man, going on 16. And they saw little else. Justice may be blind but for Pittman it was blinder than a deaf bat.

The jury didn't care that in South Carolina, a doctor had abruptly changed his Paxil prescription to Zoloft, a drug not even approved for children. But suddenly having his depression medication switched may have been the least of Pittman's problems. Even when properly dispensed some antidepressants can cause suicide and violence.

"Zoloft triggers violence," attorney Andy Vickery said during opening statements. "The doctor gave a mind-altering drug to a 90-pound 12-year-old. He did not have an evil mind. He had a mind that had been tampered with chemically."

Perhaps so, but whatever made Pittman go insane, what really matters is that imprisoning a child is inhumane.

"It was difficult, simply because he was 12 years old when he did this," Steven Platt, one of the jurors, said after the trial. "That was the big factor in the deliberations we did. That played a major role in the difficulty."
Unlike the jury, the judge was prevented by law from taking Pittman's age into account.

"This is a very tragic case, tragic to the victim and tragic to the entire family," Judge Daniel Pieper said. "This case has called attention to the very core values of this society about the treatment of juveniles and punishment."

His final words to the defendant before sentencing him to South Carolina's 30-year minimum for murder: "Good luck to you."

As luck would have it, the South Carolina Supreme Court took a look at his case last year, saying it involved "an issue of significant public interest." But the state argued that when it came to murder, there was "simply no identifiable national consensus" against locking up 12-year-olds and throwing away the key. The court agreed, and upheld the sentence.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused even to hear Pittman's appeal. This despite his lawyers' pleas that ignoring his age had violated the U.S. Constitution's clause against cruel and unusual punishment; that Pittman, now 19, was serving the longest sentence anywhere for a crime committed so young; and that the whole thing just made America look bad.

"Punishing young children with excessive sentences violates international norms of human rights and juvenile justice law," they said. "Virtually no other nation in the world subjects young children to such long sentences."

The High Court replied by subjecting the lawyers to a decidedly short sentence: "No comment."

Pittman's one hope of emerging from prison anytime before 2031 now rests with South Carolina's governor. And there would be no greater child advocate than Gov. Mark Sanford were he to issue a pardon. The case is emblematic, a glaring reminder that while there are laws to protect children from predators, there is nothing to protect them from the law itself.

Pittman has been in prison for seven years -- or about one year for every hour the jury deliberated before putting him away for decades. Absent a pardon, he will be in his mid-forties when he leaves Broad River Correctional Institution, in Columbia. Freeing him might not seem as important as bailing out Wall Street. But it is.

Pardoning Pittman, after all, isn't just about pardoning Pittman. It is about chipping away at an unpardonable belief that some children are disposable. By issuing a pardon, Sanford, who has four sons of his own, would send a clear message that children are not simply pint-sized adults. And that imprisoning instead of rehabilitating them isn't justice.

It is barbarity.

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Salah Obeid is a freelance writer living in Detroit (soon to be France).
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