State v. Pittman

Decision Date11 June 2007
Docket NumberNo. 26339.,26339.
CourtSouth Carolina Supreme Court
PartiesThe STATE, Respondent, v. Christopher Frank PITTMAN, Appellant.

Henry Jerome Mims, of Mims Law Firm, of Greer; Arnold Anderson Vickery, Paul F. Waldner, Fred H. Shepherd, all of Vickery & Waldner, of Houston, TX; Chief Attorney Joseph L. Savitz, III, of South Carolina Commission on Indigent Defense, of Columbia; Earl Landers Vickery, of Austin, TX; and Karen Barth Menzies, of Baum Hedlund, PC, of Los Angeles, CA, for Appellant.

Attorney General Henry Dargan McMaster, Chief Deputy Attorney General John W. McIntosh, Assistant Deputy Attorney General Donald J. Zelenka, Assistant Attorney General S. Creighton Waters, and Solicitor Warren Blair Giese, all of Columbia, for Respondent.

Milton E. Hamilton, of Chester, for Guardian Ad Litem.

Chief Justice TOAL:

Christopher Pittman was arrested and charged with double homicide in connection with the deaths of his paternal grandparents. Pittman was twelve years old at the time of the incident. After a hearing, the family court waived jurisdiction allowing Pittman to be tried as an adult. The jury convicted Pittman of both murders and the trial judge sentenced Pittman to two concurrent terms of thirty years imprisonment. This appeal followed. We affirm.


In November of 2001, Christopher Pittman (Appellant) shot and killed his paternal grandparents, Joe Frank and Joy Pittman, at close range with a .410 shotgun. At the time of the incident, Appellant was twelve years old and had recently come from Florida, where he lived with his father, to live with his grandparents in Chester, South Carolina.

Shortly before moving to Chester with his grandparents, Appellant's relationship with his father became strained. Specifically, Appellant had attempted to run away from home, and also had threatened to harm himself with a knife. In response to this behavior, Appellant's father committed him to an inpatient facility. While at the facility, Appellant began taking the antidepressant Paxil. Soon after a short period of commitment, Appellant's father had him released from the facility and agreed to allow Appellant to live with his grandparents in Chester.

Upon moving to Chester, Appellant enrolled in school and began to actively participate in church with his grandparents. His grandmother also continued Appellant's treatment for depression by taking him to a local physician to refill his Paxil prescription. The physician did not refill the Paxil prescription, but instead offered free samples and a prescription of Zoloft.1

On the day of the murders, the assistant principal of Appellant's school called Appellant's grandparents to the school in response to an incident which occurred the previous day on the school bus. During the incident in question, Appellant allegedly choked a second grade student. After leaving the school, Appellant and his grandparents attended choir practice. The church musician testified that she admonished Appellant for kicking her chair, at which time his grandfather took him outside to talk to him. Upon their return, the musician noted that Appellant had an angry expression.

According to Appellant, when they returned home, his grandparents locked him in his room and his grandfather warned him that he would paddle Appellant if he came out of the room. Later that night, Appellant came out of his room and his grandfather paddled him. After his grandparents went to bed, Appellant waited for ten minutes, loaded a shotgun, entered their bedroom, and shot his grandparents to death in their bed. Appellant then lit several candles and positioned them so that the house would catch on fire after he left. Appellant collected some money, weapons, and his dog, took the keys to his grandparents SUV, and drove away.

Early the next morning, two hunters found Appellant wandering around in the woods with a shotgun. Appellant told the hunters that he had been kidnapped by a black man who had shot his grandparents and set their home on fire. Appellant further told the hunters that he was able to escape when the kidnapper got the SUV stuck in the woods. He further stated that the kidnapper had shot at him before throwing the vehicle's keys and running into the woods. Upon hearing this story, the hunters, who were also firemen with the Corinth Fire Department, took Appellant to the fire station where they alerted the police.

A search ensued for the black man who allegedly committed the crimes as Appellant suggested. During this time, Chester deputy Lucinda McKellar (McKellar) arrived to speak with Appellant. Under the impression that Appellant was a victim and possible witness to the crimes, McKellar took an oral and written statement from Appellant. In the statements, Appellant related the story that he had told the hunters.

As the search for the alleged kidnapper continued, the Chester police were also conducting an investigation of the crime scene. At some point in the afternoon, McKellar's supervisor notified her that the information from the crime scene and the search of the vehicle indicated that Appellant was a possible suspect in the crimes. At that time, McKellar took Appellant to the police station.

When they arrived at the police station, McKellar took Appellant to a conference room and told him that they needed to have an "adult conversation." Pittman sat down at the table and McKellar explained the Miranda rights. At that time, Appellant gave the officers a third statement in which he confessed to the murders and detailed the events of the night. McKellar wrote the statement and Appellant read and signed it.

After his confession, the police arrested Appellant for double homicide and arson. The prosecution filed a motion with the family court to waive its jurisdiction, which the family court granted. After several pretrial motions, various continuances, and delays, Appellant's trial was held from January 31, 2005 to February 15, 2005. The jury convicted Appellant on both counts of murder. The trial judge sentenced Appellant to the shortest sentence possible under the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines—two concurrent terms of thirty years imprisonment.

After unsuccessfully arguing several post-trial motions for a new trial, Appellant filed this notice of appeal. This Court certified the appeal for review pursuant to Rule 204(b), SCACR, and issued an order expediting the appeal. Appellant raises the following issues for review:

I. Did the trial court err in failing to direct a verdict in favor of Appellant because the prosecution failed to present sufficient evidence to rebut the presumption of incapacity?

II. Was Appellant deprived of his constitutional right to a speedy trial?

III. Did the trial court err in denying Appellant's motion for a new trial based on two jurors' post-trial comments that they did not think Appellant was guilty?

IV. Did the trial court err in denying Appellant's motion for a new trial based on juror misconduct?

V. Did the family court err in waiving jurisdiction over Appellant's case?

VI. Should this Court overrule its previous decision in State v. Corey D., 339 S.C. 107, 529 S.E.2d 20 (2000)?

VII. Does it violate the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution to sentence a twelve-year-old to a thirty-year prison term without the possibility of parole?

VIII. Did the trial court err in failing to suppress Appellant's confession?

IX. Did the trial court err in failing to charge the jury on the offenses of voluntary and involuntary manslaughter?

X. Did the trial court properly charge the jury regarding involuntary intoxication?

XI. Did the trial court err in excluding certain anecdotal information regarding the effects of Zoloft?

I. Presumption of Incapacity

Appellant argues that the trial court erred in failing to grant his motion for directed verdict because the prosecution failed to present sufficient evidence during its case in chief to rebut the presumption of incapacity. Specifically, Appellant argues that lay testimony is insufficient to rebut the presumption, and suggests that expert testimony is required. We disagree.

When a motion for a directed verdict of acquittal is made in a criminal case, the trial court is concerned with the existence or non-existence of evidence, not its weight. The accused is entitled to a directed verdict when the evidence merely raises a suspicion of guilt. The accused also is entitled to a directed verdict when the State fails to present evidence on a material element of the offense charged. However, if the State presents any evidence which reasonably tends to prove the defendants[sic] guilt, or from which the defendants[sic] guilt can be fairly and logically deduced, the case must go to the jury. On appeal from the denial of a motion for directed verdict, this Court must view the evidence in a light most favorable to the State.

State v. Brown, 360 S.C. 581, 586-87, 602 S.E.2d 392, 395 (2004) (emphasis added) (internal citations omitted).

Generally, a criminal defendant is presumed to have the requisite capacity to be held responsible for the commission of a crime. State v. Smith, 298 S.C. 205, 208, 379 S.E.2d 287, 288 (1989) (stating that a criminal defendant is presumed sane). However, "[w]here a person is between seven and fourteen years of age, he is presumed not to have the mental capacity of committing a crime, but that is a rebuttable presumption, and it may be shown that he was mentally capable of committing a crime, although he was between the age of seven and fourteen years." State v. Blanden, 177 S.C. 1, 21, 180 S.E. 681, 689-90 (1935) (citing the trial court's jury charge on presumption of incapacity with approval).

Although this Court has not previously addressed whether expert testimony is required to rebut the presumption of incapacity regarding children...

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