WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court refused Monday to review a 30-year prison sentence for a teen who was 12 when he killed his grandparents in South Carolina.
Lawyers for Christopher Pittman wanted the justices to examine whether the long prison term for a child violates the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. With no possibility of parole, he will be 42 before he is released, they said.
Pittman is the only inmate serving such a lengthy sentence for a crime committed at such a young age, his lawyers said. The judge who sentenced him was prohibited by law from taking his age into account.
South Carolina contended the punishment is proportionate to the crime and said there is a national trend of increased punishment for young violent criminals.
Pittman used a shotgun to shoot Joe and Joy Pittman in their bed and then set fire to their home in 2001. During his trial four years later, Pittman's attorneys unsuccessfully argued the slayings were influenced by the antidepressant Zoloft — a charge the maker of the drug vigorously denied.
The Supreme Court appeal dealt only with the length of Pittman's sentence.
"The unwillingness of U.S. jurisdictions to punish 12-year-olds so harshly ... reflects a societal consensus that lengthy imprisonment without possibility of parole constitutes excessive punishment as applied to 12-year-old children," Pittman's lawyers wrote in asking the Supreme Court to take the case.
The South Carolina Supreme Court said Pittman's age belied the complexity of his crime. He planned a double murder, executed an escape plan and concocted a false story of what happened, the state high court said in upholding the punishment.
The state also pointed to recent examples of children as young as 13 receiving sentences of up to life in prison.
"Simply because the combination of factors justifying adult punishment for those so young ... does not happen often, does not mean that when it does the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentence that appropriately addresses society's need for retribution, incapacitation and deterrence," said state Attorney General Henry McMaster.
Each year about 200,000 defendants under 18 are treated as adults, according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice. Many states automatically define young defendants as adults, due to their age or offense. Those numbers escalated in the 1990s as juvenile crime soared and legislators responded, with 48 states making it easier to transfer children into criminal court, according to the center.
Pittman's case drew wide attention, in part because of the link his lawyers tried to make between the crime and Zoloft. It is the most widely prescribed antidepressant in the United States, with 32.7 million prescriptions written in 2003. In 2004, the Food and Drug Administration ordered Zoloft and other antidepressants to carry "black box" warnings — the government's strongest warning short of a ban — about an increased risk of suicidal behavior in children.
The case is Pittman v. South Carolina, 07-8436.