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Jury rejects Zoloft insanity defense in Anthony Orban rape trial

Former police detective Anthony Orban had testified that he had no memory of the 2010 attack on a waitress, blaming a psychotic break on the antidepressant Zoloft. He may face life in prison.

June 27, 2012|By Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times
  • Anthony Orban, right, standing with attorney James Blatt, faces a long prison sentence after a jury Tuesday rejected his defense that he was in an antidepressant-induced blackout, and legally insane, when he kidnapped and raped a waitress.
Anthony Orban, right, standing with attorney James Blatt, faces a long… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

A former Westminster police detective may face life in prison after a San Bernardino County jury Tuesday rejected his defense that he was in an antidepressant-induced blackout, and legally insane, when he kidnapped and raped a waitress.

Anthony Orban testified that he had no memory of the 2010 attack and blamed his psychotic break on a powerful dose of the popular antidepressant Zoloft, which he said had triggered hallucinations and suicidal and homicidal fantasies in the days before the abduction.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Debbie Ploghaus said she was happy that the jury saw through the complex testimony surrounding the "Zoloft defense," calling Orban's claim of suffering a drug-induced blackout a ruse he concocted after his arrest.

"He's very dangerous. He's very manipulative," Ploghaus said afterward. "I truly believe in my heart that he had no intention of letting her go."

Inside a packed Rancho Cucamonga courtroom, Orban gently shook his head as Superior Court Judge Shahla S. Sabat read the jury's verdict in the sanity phase of his trial.

The 25-year-old victim, identified only as "Jane Doe," let out an audible sigh, then doubled over in tears.

The eight-woman, four-man jury deliberated for two days before reaching its decision. The same panel two weeks ago found Orban guilty of kidnapping, rape and multiple counts of sexual assault, dismissing the defense's claims that Zoloft had rendered him mentally "unconscious" and therefore not responsible for his actions.

Zoloft again was central to the defense in the sanity phase of the trial. Orban's attorney, James Blatt of Los Angeles, tried to convince the jury that Orban was in such a drug-induced fog that he could not tell the difference between right and wrong, and therefore should be sent to a state mental hospital for treatment, instead of prison.

"It is always a difficult road for the jury to reach an insanity decision," Blatt said after the verdict. "One of the major goals for the defense was to expose to the public the dangers of psychotropic drugs and what could happen."

Orban could face a prison sentence of more than 200 years, in part because of enhancements for kidnapping and using a firearm. He is scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 9.

Experts for the defense and for the prosecution agreed that Orban suffered some form of blackout during the incident but differed on what triggered it.

Clinical psychologist Craig Rath, a witness for the prosecution, Thursday said he believed Orban's blackout was more attributable to alcohol. The day of the attack, Orban and a friend barhopped across Ontario, ordering eight margaritas and two pitchers of beer between them, according to evidence presented at the trial.

An alcohol-induced blackout does not meet the criterion for legal insanity under California law because it is considered voluntary intoxication.

"He was not insane," Rath testified. "He understood the nature and quality of his acts and could distinguish between right and wrong."

Rath said patients can have reactions to Zoloft that include aggression, decreased inhibition and delirium, but that the evidence was overwhelming that alcohol caused Orban's breakdown.

Multiple studies have shown that taking Zoloft, prescribed to millions of Americans suffering from depression, can double the intoxicating effects of alcohol, which could explain why Orban suffered confusion and the blackout, Rath said.

Even if alcohol was a contributing factor, Blatt argued to the jury, Zoloft was the root cause. The decreased inhibition caused by the antidepressant made Orban more susceptible to drinking alcohol, which in turn interacted with the Zoloft and caused the blackout.

Defense witness Dr. Peter Breggin, a New York psychiatrist who has been a persistent critic of psychotropic drugs, testified that Zoloft made Orban "zombie-like" in the days leading up to the attack.

Orban had stopped taking the prescribed antidepressant for nearly a month, then resumed it at full dose five days before the rape, a pattern that Breggin said provoked a psychotic break during which he was "delirious" and not fully aware of his actions.

Blatt said after the verdict, however, that jurors may have believed that Orban decided to start drinking of his own accord, and therefore was responsible for his mental break.

Members of the jury declined to comment after the verdict.

"This case would have been much cleaner, from a defense perspective, if it was simply the use of psychotropic drugs," Blatt said. "But the combination of alcohol has always complicated this case."

Manufactured by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, Zoloft has been prescribed for depression since it was approved by the FDA in 1991. Depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States. About one in 10 Americans older than 12 has taken antidepressants, according to a 2011 Centers for Disease Control study.

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