Did the Drugs Make Him Do It? The Zoloft Defense

In one January 2004 case, defense attorneys argued that in 2002, 27-year-old Christopher Bernaiche of Southgate, Mich., was acting under the influence of Prozac when he got into a fight at a bar -- and then returned with a gun, killing two and injuring three others.

And while it is not an antidepressant like Zoloft or Prozac, Ambien has also entered the realm of the legal system as a defense against reckless driving charges. The drug made national headlines on May 5, 2006, when Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy smashed his Ford Mustang into a barrier near Capitol Hill. He later released a statement saying that he had been disoriented by two prescription medications he had taken, one of which was Ambien.

As for the so-called Zoloft defense, "There are a lot of cases that have attempted this before," Bernstein said -- though he added that such cases have often been complicated by a jury's unwillingness to accept the argument that violent behavior could be explained away by the effects of a drug.

Questions Surround Antidepressant Side Effects

Yet, there have been instances in the past where such arguments with regard to the class of antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, have been successful. In February 2000, 28-year-old Christopher DeAngelo was acquitted of a bank robbery charge by a Connecticut judge on the grounds that DeAngelo's judgment was impaired by the antidepressant Prozac and the anxiety medication Xanax.

Whether such a defense is scientifically feasible is still a matter of debate in the medical community. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has made additions to labeling on SSRIs to warn of the possibility of suicidal behaviors in children using the drugs, they have not included warnings with regard to other behavioral tendencies, such as aggression.

Bernstein argued that Health Canada -- the Canadian counterpart to the FDA -- since May 2004 has required labeling for SSRIs to warn both adults and children of "severe agitation-type adverse events coupled with self-harm or harm to others" including "hostility" and "aggression."

Dr. Stefan Kruszewski, a Harrisburg, Pa., psychiatrist and expert witness for the defense, said he could only speak generally about SSRIs and not about the Hampson case specifically.

"In a case-by-case basis, all you can do is look at the evidence," he said.

But he said that biologically speaking, the idea that antidepressants could result in unwanted behavioral changes, including violence, is definitely plausible.

"To say that these drugs are incapable of inducing violence is just silly to me," he said.

Dr. John Abramson, clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School in Boston and author of "Overdosed America," agreed.

"Whether or not in this particular case this woman was harmed as a result of side effects of coming off the medication, there are always risks of medications," said Abramson, who is not involved with the Hampson case.

Abramson said that while the verdict should be left up to the courtroom, such cases should draw doctors' attention to the possible side effects of SSRIs.

"There isn't a medicine that's powerful enough to be helpful that isn't powerful enough to cause side effects," said Abramson. "We forget that. We hope that medicines are going to be magic pills and they're not."

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