Did the Drugs Make Him Do It? The Zoloft Defense

Photo: The Prozac defense. The Ambien defense. And now the Zoloft defense.

It all began with the Prozac defense. Then came the Ambien defense. And now the Zoloft defense.

The side effects of certain psychoactive drugs have for years emerged in court cases as the supposed hidden culprits in various crimes, from vehicular homicide to physical assault.

Now, the most recent example of this legal move is being played out in the First District Court in Hempstead in Long Island, N.Y.

According to court documents, 38-year-old Brandon Hampson of Lynbrook, N.Y., is charged with assault against his then-girlfriend, Lisa Essling, 28, of Amlverne, N.Y. on Aug. 25, 2006. Police claim that Hampson tackled Essling to the ground before punching and kicking her in her head, face and back. Hampson is charged with third-degree assault, a misdemeanor crime. The charge is accompanied by four other counts that suggest violent behavior from Hampson.

Eric Bernstein, who is defending Hampson in the case, said that he believes the fact that his client had been taking the anti-depression drug Zoloft, but had been off the medication prior to the incident, strongly suggests that withdrawal from the antidepressant could explain his behavior.

"Our defense is that ... withdrawal from the drug was a contributing factor -- if not directly responsible -- for the event," Bernstein said. "Clearly this is not a joke or gimmick-type defense. This is very serious, very legitimate and is going to get a lot of traction. You're going to be seeing more of this, because it's real."

There are signs that the defense could face an uphill battle. Hampson was convicted of assault against a former girlfriend in 1995; Bernstein would not comment on whether he was taking Zoloft at or near the time of that episode.

Eric Phillips, the prosecuting attorney in the case, said no evidence exists to suggest that Hampson had been taking Zoloft at or near the time of the 1995 assault -- which, if true, could affect how a jury perceives the likelihood that side effects from the drug could be involved in the more recent incident.

Zoloft Data Shows No Increased Violence Risk, Company Says

"We are confident in our prosecution of the defendant in that we will -- and the victim will -- prevail in our case," Phillips said.

Meanwhile, Pfizer, the manufacturer of Zoloft, said in a statement Wednesday that no evidence exists to suggest that their drug would have violence-inducing side effects that could lead to such an episode.

"Zoloft is a safe and effective medication that has been used to treat millions of patients with depression and anxiety disorders," the statement reads. "We continuously monitor the postmarketing safety of our medicines and evaluate all available data to ascertain any signal of increased risk.

"Pfizer's evaluation of Zoloft data never has revealed any signal of an increased risk of violence related to either use or discontinuation of use (withdrawal) of Zoloft."

The case is not the first to throw the popular antidepressant into the legal limelight. One high-profile South Carolina case in February 2005 focused on a teenager who was found guilty of shooting his grandparents to death when he was 12 years old and was subsequently sentenced to 30 years in prison.

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.

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