Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Judge agrees Prozac made teen a killer

Declines to move case to adult court

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A Winnipeg teen was driven to commit an unprovoked murder because of the adverse affects of taking Prozac, a Manitoba judge has ruled.

The boy, who was 16 at the time of the September 2009 attack inside a West St. Paul home, won a major legal victory Friday based on the impact the drug apparently had on his actions.

Provincial court Judge Robert Heinrichs agreed to keep the case in youth court, where he faces a maximum sentence of four more years behind bars on the charge of second-degree murder. The Crown wanted his case raised to adult court, where he would have received a mandatory life sentence with no chance of parole for at least seven years. Sentencing will take place on Oct. 4.

"His basic normalcy now further confirms he no longer poses a risk of violence to anyone and that his mental deterioration and resulting violence would not have taken place without exposure to Prozac," Heinrichs said in his decision.

Justice officials say this case may be the first of its kind in Manitoba and one of only a handful ever seen in Canada.

The ruling was met with jeers by the family of the victim, Seth Ottenbreit. The 15-year-old died of a single stab wound to the stomach. The family has repeatedly called on justice officials for tougher sanctions for teen killers.

Dozens of family members and friends filled the courtroom Friday afternoon, shortly after they paraded in front of the Law Courts with signs and posters showing Ottenbreit's body in his casket. Donna Noble, the victim's mother, called the accused a "cowardly murderer" and says she wanted to call attention to what she says are the relaxed attitudes to punishing young offenders.

"I wanted to stand up in court and yell, 'How dare you let him be charged as a youth?' " Laura Martin, whose daughter went to school with Ottenbreit, said outside court.

A psychiatrist, Dr. Keith Hildahl, testified earlier this year it's troubling Ottenbreit's killer hasn't been able to provide any reason for his actions. The boy, who had no criminal record, had been prescribed Prozac three months prior to the slaying. Hildahl said some studies have linked Prozac with behavioural and emotional changes in young users. Defence lawyer Greg Brodsky told court the teen's parents complained he was getting worse while taking the drug, prompting his doctor to hike the dosage.

Brodsky called an expert witness who has testified in numerous high-profile cases across North America in which killers were taking anti-depressant drugs. Dr. Peter Breggin, a New York-based psychiatrist, told court the teen's use of Prozac likely meant he wasn't in full control of his actions.

Heinrichs said Friday the use of Prozac resulted in "unique circumstances" he was forced to consider. He described how the killer went from a loving, happy-go-lucky kid to a dark, depressed drug abuser. The accused began to act out violently and even tried to harm himself on several occasions. Heinrichs said it's clear the boy's parents did the right thing in taking their concerns to his various doctors, but they were largely ignored as the Prozac dosage was only increased.

"To them it was clear his behaviour had deteriorated since going on Prozac," said Heinrichs. Since his arrest, the boy has been clean of all drugs, has expressed remorse for his actions and greatly reduced his risk to the public.

"He has none of the characteristics of a perpetrator of violence," said Heinrichs. "The prospects for rehabilitation are very good."

Ottenbreit was wounded after a dispute at the killer's home. Ottenbreit and a friend had gone over to the residence on a Sunday morning, where they got into an argument with the accused's younger brother. Ottenbreit shoved the boy, causing a chair to fall over and leave a mark on the new floor, court heard.

The accused wasn't home at the time but got angry when he found out what happened. He then invited Ottenbreit and his friend to return to the home that afternoon when he suddenly pulled out a knife from under a blanket and stabbed him once in the stomach while they all stood in the garage.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 17, 2011 0

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