Courts & Crime

New trial ordered for soldier who says anti-smoking drug drove him to kill

Pfizer's antismoking medicine, Chantix, November 13, 2007. (Ed Hille/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT)
Pfizer's antismoking medicine, Chantix, November 13, 2007. (Ed Hille/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT) MCT

The nation’s highest military appeals court on Wednesday ordered a new trial for a soldier who killed a Fresno, Calif., native in a sudden rage allegedly induced by the anti-smoking drug Chantix.

In a unanimous decision, the five-member U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces concluded the original trial judge should have instructed jurors that “involuntary intoxication” could be a defense. The defendant, Army Pfc. George D.B. MacDonald, says the Chantix caused him to snap.

“The members were not told that involuntary intoxication itself or in combination with (MacDonald’s) other conditions could impact his ability to appreciate the nature and quality of wrongfulness of his act,” Chief Judge James Baker wrote. “As a result, we are left with reasonable doubt as to whether the absence of an instruction contributed to the verdict.”

The 37-page decision means the possibility of eventual freedom for MacDonald, who was sentenced to life without parole after his original conviction. MacDonald’s civilian attorney, William E. Cassara, said Wednesday that he was ecstatic at the ruling.

“I am quite thrilled for everyone, and I do mean for everyone concerned,” said Michelle Langerman, a MacDonald family friend. “I hope and I believe that this result will eventually be regarded by all as wise, just, appropriate and beneficial to everyone having an interest in this case.”

The decision also means more uncertainty for the family members of Rick Bulmer, the 23-year-old Army recruit killed at Georgia’s Fort Benning in May 2008.

“I’m really disappointed,” Bulmer’s mother, Fresno resident Wendy Smith, said when informed of the court’s decision. “This is somebody who knew exactly what he was doing.”

The prospect of a new trial with an explicit blame-the-drug defense puts the spotlight back on the Food and Drug Administration, Chantix and Pfizer, the drug’s manufacturer.

“Several experts provided ‘some evidence’ that Chantix affected (MacDonald’s) ability to appreciate the nature and quality or wrongfulness of his acts,” Baker wrote. “There was also ‘some evidence’ from Pfizer and the FDA, including the rapidly escalating warnings that culminated in a black box warning, that Chantix could have dramatic adverse effects on some patients.”

Chantix, also known as varenicline, combats nicotine addiction. In pre-approval clinical studies, 44 percent of those who used Chantix and received counseling over a 12-week period successfully quit smoking. Only 18 percent of those given a placebo and counseling quit.

“Chantix is an important, effective, FDA-approved treatment option for adult smokers who want to quit,” Pfizer said in a statement earlier this year. “Chantix is approved for use in more than 100 countries and has been prescribed to over 20 million patients worldwide, including more than 10 million in the United States.”

Pfizer reported that Chantix generated $486 million in sales during the first nine months of last year.

But since it came onto the market in 2006, Chantix has also incited numerous complaints. On July 1, 2009, the FDA imposed its highest-level “black box” warning on the Chantix label, cautioning users to be on the lookout for signs of hostility or agitation. The company has since reported paying at least $299 million to settle several thousand lawsuits.

MacDonald, a promising young paratrooper being groomed for West Point, was prescribed Chantix in April 2008, one month before he came upon Bulmer sleeping in the barracks. A former student at Madera High School, in California’s San Joaquin Valley, Bulmer was married and his wife, Beth, was expecting their first child. He was in his first week of basic training, a longtime goal.

MacDonald stabbed and slashed Bulmer more than 50 times.

“I snapped and didn’t like it,” MacDonald wrote about nine hours after the killing. “I was stretched and it made me crazy.”

The original trial judge, Army Col. James Pohl, rejected efforts by MacDonald’s defense attorneys to subpoena Pfizer for a mass of Chantix-related documents. The military appeals court’s decision Wednesday sidestepped that issue.

Pohl has since moved to a job at Guantanamo Bay, presiding over the military commission trials of terrorism suspects.

A lower-level Army appeals court had concluded Pohl erred by not issuing the involuntary intoxication defense instructions, but it reasoned the error was harmless. In the decision Wednesday, the higher-level appeals court found the error was harmful.

“If involuntary intoxication was not a complete defense, it could have been a partial defense by negating an element in specific intent or premeditation,” Baker wrote.

Cassara, MacDonald’s appellate attorney, said his client probably would be moved out of the U.S. Disciplinary Barrack at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and placed in pretrial confinement while the next steps unfolded.

“I am cautiously hopeful,” said Paige MacDonald, MacDonald’s half sister.

Wendy Smith, Bulmer’s mother, said “to have another trial at Fort Benning, that’s going to be harder than hell for us to get to.”