April 24, 2004

SANTA CRUZ — Move over Twinkies. It’s apparently the era of the Zoloft defense.

Jurors on Thursday found a Southern California man innocent of attempted murder and assault after a prominent neuropsychiatrist testified that he struck his friend in the head four times with a pronged brass knuckles-type weapon because of an adverse reaction to Zoloft, a popular antidepressant.

Andrew Meyers, 28, had been taking the drug for two weeks when he struck his longtime friend in the head with a "ninja key ring" on June 20, 2002. The two had had a disagreement about a bike Meyers had sold the man five years ago, said Kristin Carter, the public defender who successfully tried the case.

"Everyone was shocked he did this; Meyers was shocked," she said.

She called the altercation at a home on Ponderosa Drive outside Scotts Valley "only a four-second fight." The 28-year-old victim was treated and released at a local hospital after getting seven stitches and staples. He has a permanent scar and lump on his skull, prosecutor Barbara Rizzieri said.

A disappointed Rizzieri said jurors obviously didn’t believe a prosecution-hired doctor who said that the drug was not in Meyer’s blood when he was arrested, and that the small amount found in his urine would have had a minimal effect.

Others testified Meyers had told them the only side effects he noticed were tiredness and a stomach ache, Rizzieri said.

But James Merikangas of Baltimore, who lowered his fee because he felt strongly about the case, testified that Meyers suffered from "involuntary intoxication," Carter said.

The Food and Drug Administration last month warned makers of 10 antidepressants, including Zoloft, to add warnings about a possible heightened risk of suicide in some patients, saying the drugs may cause agitation, anxiety and hostility in rare cases.

Merikangas of Georgetown University Hospital is a frequent expert witness for the defense. In 1998, he argued that Michael Person, 39, who was found guilty of stabbing a woman to death in New Haven, Conn., was a "natural born killer" who was unable to control his violent impulses.

A deputy said Meyers confessed to wanting to kill his friend, but he failed to tape-record the interview, which Carter said troubled some jurors. Rizzieri said she believed that was not a decisive issue.

The trial began April 12 and jurors deliberated for 1½ days.

Carter said some jurors were upset that the case was allowed to go so far, calling it a waste of taxpayers’ money.

"This kid should never have had to go through this," she said. "He’s a sweet, naive kid who spent two years of his life locked up in jail."

Rizzieri said the case would have been resolved if Meyers had accepted responsibility for his actions early on.

Meyers has no criminal record. Carter said jurors also chose not to convict him of misdemeanor assault.

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