Last year, an Army soldier, who brutally stabbed another soldier to death in 2008, won a new hearing because the judge in his original trial refused to let him put on an involuntary intoxication defense. The soldier claimed that he was so neurologically disturbed by Chantix that he was not aware of what he was doing. A military court then reduced his sentence from life without parole to 45 years.
Involuntary intoxication is not a new defense, but as we discussed on the True Crime blog in May, it is having more success in courts across the country. Last year in St. Paul, Minn., a woman charged with trying to kill and assault her two small children was released when prosecutors decided that the charges could not stand “in light of the defendant’s involuntary intoxication at the time of the charged incident.” A Columbia, Mo., woman who was convicted of causing a fatal wreck while driving the wrong way on Interstate 70 has been granted a new trial because she may have been secretly given a “date rape” drug before taking the wheel.
The defense did not work in Fairfax County, Va., in May, where a man who had invaded another lawyer’s home, took the lawyer and his wife hostage and then stabbed and shot them, later claimed that his prescribed cocktail of pain and psychiatric medications made him involuntarily intoxicated. A jury disagreed, convicted Andrew Schmuhl and sentenced him to two life sentences plus 98 years.
In Carroll County, Md., lawyers for Keith E. Sluder, 44, appear to be the second ones to specifically invoke Chantix for a successful involuntary intoxication defense. In November 2014, according to the Carroll County Times, Sluder awoke his wife and told her they had to go to his mother’s house. When she followed him up the stairs, he shot her once and tried to shoot her again, but the gun malfunctioned. When a sheriff’s deputy arrived and pointed his gun at Sluder, police said he tried to grab the deputy’s gun. The deputy did not shoot him.
Sluder’s lawyer, Lawrence Greenburg, argued at Sluder’s hearing that Chantix caused Sluder to have a chemical imbalance. And prosecutors in New Carroll essentially did not argue with that, which would tend to indicate that their mental health expert examined Sluder and came to the same conclusion. The prosecutors allowed Sluder to enter an Alford plea to assault, and they dropped two counts of attempted murder.
Carroll County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Stansfield found Sluder not criminally responsible for the assault charge and ordered him released from custody Monday, according to the Carroll County Times. The Times reported that the shooting victim and her family pleaded with the judge not to release Sluder, but the judge said he was bound by the definition of not criminally responsible. The family reportedly was not happy with the decision.
Pfizer, the maker of Chantix, has denied that the drug has any neuropsychiatric effects. But McClatchy News Service reported in 2014 that more than 2,000 people had joined in lawsuits against Pfizer for various psychiatric problems, including suicide and suicidal thoughts. Pfizer settled most of them for an estimated total of at least $299 million, McClatchy reported.
Pfizer spokesman Steven Danehy said Tuesday, “There is no reliable scientific evidence that Chantix causes serious neuropsychiatric events. In fact, the largest global clinical trial of smoking cessation medications, including varenicline, bupropion and nicotine replacement patch, which was ordered by the FDA and recently published in The Lancet also ‘did not show a significant increase in serious neuropsychiatric adverse events attributable to varenicline compared to placebo and nicotine replacement patch .’”
Danehy said Chantix, generically known as varenicline, was “an important, effective, FDA-approved treatment option for adult smokers who want to quit. Chantix is approved for use in more than 100 countries and has been prescribed to over 20 million patients worldwide, including more than 11 million in the United States.”
But the drug was still cited for its alleged role in a military murder case, which was greatly troubling to the family of Rick Bulmer, who was an Army recruit at Fort Benning, Ga., in 2008. While Bulmer slept in his bunk one night, Pfc. George D.B. MacDonald suddenly attacked him with a knife, slashed his throat and killed him for no reason. He claimed that the smoking cessation drug had made him delusional. A jury in 2009 convicted him of murder and sentenced him to life without parole.
But in 2014, MacDonald was granted a rehearing because of revelations about Chantix, which he hadn’t been allowed to pursue at trial. McClatchy reported that one week after the judge in MacDonald’s case refused to compel Pfizer to respond to a subpoena, the FDA issued a “black box” warning on Chantix because of its potential for “serious neuropsychiatric” problems. It is the most serious warning a medication can carry and still be sold.
Bulmer’s family was outraged at the case being reopened, McClatchy reported in 2015. “It’s a mindblower, and we don’t understand it,” said Bulmer’s mother, Wendy Smith. “He cold-bloodedly killed my son. He knew what he was doing and … he should take his punishment.”
A plea deal resulted in a guilty plea to a reduced charge of unpremeditated murder. His sentence was reduced to 45 years.
NOTE: This post has been updated to include comment from Pfizer.