Now that the longest night of the year, the winter solstice, has passed, the days must be getting longer for 16-year-old Christopher Pittman as he serves a 30-year sentence for killing his grandparents with a shotgun four years ago, when he was only 12.
This week marks the one-year anniversary of Pittman’s sentencing, when a local jury rejected the “involuntary intoxication” argument and found the teenager guilty of murdering his grandparents in November 2001 with a shotgun his father had given him the week before. His grandparents had punished him for a school bus incident earlier that week.
State Circuit Court Judge Danny Pieper sentenced Pittman to 30 years in prison, the minimum allowed under state law for an adult.
And as the days lengthen, the chances of Pittman — who has already been incarcerated for more than four years — getting out of jail before he’s in his mid-40s is getting longer and longer.
But that hasn’t stopped a member of his legal defense team and various “Free Christopher Pittman” organizations from continuing the fight.
At the end of last month, attorney Andy Vickery of Houston, Texas, filed a motion with the S.C. Supreme Court asking that Pittman be freed because, the attorney says, an important state legal precedent was overlooked in his trial and previous appeals to the Court.
According to Vickery, a 50-year-old case in South Carolina established that a person under the age of 14 “does not have the mental capacity to form criminal intent.”
Vickery argued at the end of last year’s trial that the state had presented no evidence to rebut that precedent. And now, the attorney argues, Pittman should go free because that presumption wasn’t rebutted in trial by the state, led by Richmond County Solicitor Barney Giese.
“It would be double jeopardy to charge him again,” says Vickery. “The state had its opportunity to put up its case.”
Vickery admits to having been “as quiet as a church mouse” about the precedent during the trial, hoping it would either spring his client or pave the way for an appeal.
When asked last week why he didn’t spring the precedent on Pieper’s court on the first day of motions, Vickery was adamant in his response.
“Why would I tip off the opposition? Constitutionally, it’s the law, and it’s [Giese’s] job to try and make sure the law is followed. It’s not my job to make sure the law is followed.
“[Giese] has to come forward with some evidence; if he neglects to do so, it’s no matter to me. Why? Because, ‘duh,’ that was a presumption his office had not realized.”
Solicitor Giese declined to be interviewed for this article, stating through an official in his office that it is his policy not to speak on cases that are under appeal.
Vickery says he decided to file the state appeal in the form of a motion because it could enable the state Supreme Court more latitude to consider the entire case, which, he still contends, is fraught with procedural and legal problems.
Still, Vickery, working on Pittman’s case pro bono, knows he’s facing an uphill battle. At best. State Supreme Courts — despite recent bashings of “activist” courts and judges — generally hate to make law and precedent, preferring in most cases to allow lower courts’ rulings to stand.
As a result, a low percentage of cases are heard by higher courts every year.
“I suppose, if you just look at the statistics, the percentages are bad on appeals,” says Vickery, admitting he’s playing with a big set of dice.
But Pittman’s supporters were encouraged by the recent release of Andrea Yates, the Texas mother who drowned her five young children in a bathtub in 2001, who now awaits a second capital murder trial in a room at a state mental hospital. Yates, her defense claimed in her first trial, was suffering from postpartum depression.
“She happened to have 300 milligrams of Effexor [in her bloodstream] when that happened, which is the same sort of [psychoactive medicine] Christopher was on when he committed his act,” says Vickery.
The issue of his client’s “drugged” state when he murdered his father’s parents continues to churn support for Pittman.
Jane LaQua, a Summerville woman who became involved with the national Justice for Juveniles organization while following Pittman’s case, has joined with other organizations to continue to raise awareness of what she sees as a ridiculous standard being applied to a minor.
“There are so many splinter groups of support out there, and we’re one of the large ones,” claims LaQua, who says Justice for Juveniles’s membership has grown “substantially” since the sentencing. The organization is also launching a letter-writing campaign on Pittman’s behalf.
Another organization, Free Christopher Pittman, claims on its website (www.christopherpittman.org) that it has raised $1,600 for a legal trust fund for the young man. It also unveiled a series of radio spots in December and erected a billboard in August, directing people to its website and the issues.
LaQua says she and her daughter are helping put together a petition to send to the governor in hopes he will address the situation.
But so far, they’ve only been able to gather 2,200 signatures — a drop in the bucket compared to the 34,000 who signed a recent petition to deny Richard Valenti parole for the killing of two teenage girls 33 years ago on Folly Beach.
Vickery tries to remain unfazed by the differences in the petition amounts, saying it is an “apples and oranges” situation comparing a murdering adult and “12-year-old hallucinating on drugs not approved for kids his age, facing adult prison.”
While Pittman has nearly three decades to see if his lawyers can beat his rap, Vickery is now working under an April 9 deadline. Pittman’s 17th birthday means he will likely be transferred to an adult prison — a situation Vickery, LaQua, and others find abhorrent.
“What I’ve found is that transfer to adult jail is a matter of policy, and not a matter of law,” says Vickery. “It’s more of a custom or habit.”
As a backup to his release motion, Vickery will now argue that Pittman should be left in a juvenile facility until a final ruling on his release comes down from the state Supreme Court.
Judging by Vickery’s tenacity and endurance, if he doesn’t get what he wants from Columbia, he’ll likely take Pittman’s case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But that doesn’t mean the highest court in the land will take the case; and that means Pittman’s odds are getting longer and longer as the years and the days pass by.