Reality TV has provided lots of things: Puck, Punk’d, a renewed interest in “The Chicken of the Sea.” For about 20 people rallying outside of the South Carolina Supreme Court building last week, its most significant contribution was Court TV.
The cable channel that revels in whodunits and the minutiae of the court battles that follow spent reams of tape cataloging the trial of Christopher Pittman, a 12-year-old boy tried as an adult for killing his grandparents in the small S.C. town of Chester. The high-profile case got national attention for spotlighting perceived dangers stemming from mood-altering drugs like Zoloft and Paxil. In the end, a jury sentenced Pittman to 30 years in prison, the minimum sentence for an adult convicted of murder.
Having never taken to soap operas, Denise Ferlino of Pennsylvania was immersed in the case.
“I could not believe they came back with a guilty verdict,” she says.
Well over a year later, Ferlino and others stood out in front of the State Supreme Court building last week holding signs that read, “A Child is Never an Adult.” The galvanized group from Florida, California, Alabama, Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and our own backyard watched the proceedings last year on Court TV and decided they would fight for the young man all the way to the state’s highest court.
The case got there last week based on defense appeals regarding Pittman’s three-year wait for a trial and a confession the defense feels the boy was too young to make without a parent or an attorney present.
Pittman’s grandmother, Delnora Duprey, calls the crowd of supporters “Chris’s angels.” Some talk to him every week, others send letters, and everyone rattles off to each other week in and week out about the case, says local Melanie Petterson.
“It’s almost like a support group,” she says. “We’ve been eating and breathing this case for so long.”
Petterson got involved after seeing the local attention to the case and recognizing the same troubling symptoms of unexplained aggression in Chris that she saw when she was told to medicate her own son.
The crowd is adamant that they’d like to see Pittman come home and get the help he needs outside the prison system. Petterson says she realizes that’s a lofty goal.
“I’d like for him to go home, but I know it’s not realistic,” she says. “If they’d only remand it back to family court.”
Family court would give Pittman a maximum penalty of imprisonment until he’s 21.
Chris Snelgrove, Pittman’s pastor and a friend of his grandparents, was forced to get past his anger at Pittman’s actions.
“I got a call from the psychiatrist down there and he said, ‘You’ve got a boy down here in this prison that says you’re his pastor’,” Snelgrove says.
The years have not just caused Pittman to grow tall, but also emotionally older, and Snelgrove says he’s helping the young man come to grips with his actions.
“He’s got to come to an adult view about what he did,” Snelgrove says, regarding the concept of death and forgiveness. “The way he understood what happened as a child won’t serve him now.”
Pittman seems in reasonably good spirits. He calls his grandmother during the rally Wednesday night, claiming to be the pizza delivery guy. It’s a running joke between the two and she jokes that he’s fired because he hasn’t shown up yet and she’s hungry. In seriousness, she says his expectations of the court’s action aren’t high.
“Chris refuses to let himself get excited about it,” Duprey says. “He’s just praying that whatever he gets is better than what he has.”
What he has is about to get a lot worse, according to his attorneys. After a six-month extension that was granted to keep him in juvenile detention expires on Oct. 12, Pittman will be moved to an adult prison, barring any action by the State Supreme Court before then. During the oral arguments Thursday, Chief Justice Jean Toal noted it would be difficult for Pittman to avoid the transfer.
The day at court starts early. Small groups begin arriving at the courthouse at about 7 a.m., expecting to wait in line to get inside. There’s only 70 seats in the courtroom and they worry there won’t be enough room. It turns out they have to wait outside while another case is heard. Once in, Pittman’s supporters pull out notebooks to write down all the questions the justices ask — a request by the defense.
Defense attorney Andy Vickery starts in on the long story of Chris’ capture and questioning, but Toal cuts him off, noting the court is well aware of the circumstances of the case. Toal seems frustrated at the various directions the defense has tried to take its appeal, filing 11 in all.
“What is the error we’re asked to correct?” she asks at one point.
The complaints about the boy’s size at the time of the crime, 5’2″, and his size at trial, 6’1″, were tossed aside by the court. The defense suggests the difference impacted the court’s decision to try Pittman as an adult and impacted the jury’s decision. The justices note that a person’s different appearance alone doesn’t pass muster.
“The jury had very complete information about the arguments you make,” Toal says finally. “But it was the jury’s decision.”
Round one appears to go to the state, but more pointed questions await the prosecution. Questions center on Pittman’s age at the time of the murders and whether there was proof that he could form criminal intent. The law notes that children between the ages of 7 and 14 cannot be tried as adults unless the state can provide irrefutable evidence that the child formed criminal intent.
“What evidence did the jury have that the presumption was rebutted beyond a reasonable doubt?” Toal asks.
The state notes the confession, but Vickery says the confession of a child at such a young age is in question and the court seems receptive to that argument.
“Why shouldn’t we impose some prophylactic requirement for a person of tender years?” asks Justice Costa Pleicones.
After the hearing, Petterson is in a haze. “I don’t understand anything that went on,” she says. It’ll likely be weeks before the court makes a decision.
Duprey says she’s hopeful after the hearing. As for Pittman’s impending prison transfer, his grandmother stays positive. Asked about the reality that Pittman’s age will soon force him out of juvenile detention, even after any short stay by the court, Duprey holds her breath for a second and the corners of her eyes drop in concern.
“In my heart, I pray he’ll never see an adult prison.”