A jury in Morris County, New Jersey found a defendant not guilty of eight sexual assault charges after an expert witness attributed the alleged victim’s accusations to her use of Accutane. According to the expert, the acne medication causes psychosis, false memories, and delusional thinking.
Facts of the Case
Joseph Sternlicht was accused of having multiple incidents of sexual contact with the complaining witness between 2000 and 2006. The complaining witness was under the age of 13 during those years.
Sternlicht, a long-time coach involved in youth sports activities, was president of the Rockaway Townships’ recreational football league. He denied having any sexual contact with the complaining witness. No witnesses corroborated her accusations.
The Accutane Defense
In a “he said/she said” case, the prosecution usually argues that the complaining witness has no reason to make up a story. It is therefore critical for defendants to explain why they are being falsely accused.
In this case, the defense was built on the accuser’s use of Accutane. Accutane is a prescription acne medication that reduces the body’s production of sebum, an oily substance that contributes to acne by clogging pores.
After a controversial expedited review, the FDA approved Accutane in 1982 for treatment of severe recalcitrant cystic acne. Long after it became clear that Accutane can cause severe birth defects when used by pregnant women, the FDA initiated a program to monitor and limit its use.
A subsequent body of evidence linked the use of Accutane to depression and suicide. Doctors were advised to discontinue Accutane in patients who experienced “mood changes.”
In 2000 and 2002, a congressional committee held hearings regarding the safety of Accutane. James O’Donnell, an associate professor of pharmacology, was one of the experts who testified at those hearings. O’Donnell pointed to studies that raised serious questions about the link between Accutane and toxic psychosis, schizophrenia, and depression, as well as a condition that causes the brain to swell.
Roche, the drug company that manufactures Accutane, denies that it causes psychiatric problems. The company nevertheless added “psychosis” to its product warning as a possible side effect. Roche stopped manufacturing Accutane in 2009 but the generic version, isotretinoin, remains on the market.
A 2012 review of medical studies noted that increased attention has been given to the potential psychiatric side effects of Accutane in recent years. The review found that a number of cases have been reported that appear to link Accutane with psychosis. The review concluded that patients who have an underlying psychiatric disorder, especially bipolar disorder, are particularly likely to experience exacerbated psychiatric symptoms when they use Accutane.
Expert Testimony in Sternlicht’s Trial
Criminal defendants have used the Accutane defense in an effort to excuse their own behavior. In that context, the defense has met with little success. In the most publicized example, a jury deliberated only 45 minutes before rejecting John Mullarkey’s diminished capacity defense to a homicide charge. Mullarkey stabbed his girlfriend 16 times. Experts for both the prosecution and the defense debated whether Accutane played a role in his violent conduct.
While juries rarely accept “the drug made me do it” as a defense to criminal responsibility, they tend to be more receptive to arguments that a drug affected the ability of a witness to provide credible testimony. James O’Donnell, the pharmacologist who testified before Congress, was called as an expert witness in the Sternlicht trial to cast doubt on the alleged victim’s accusations.
O’Donnell testified that Accutane can cause individuals to experience “a distorted version of reality.” That testimony gave the jury a reason to understand why the complaining witness might invent a series of sexual encounters that never happened. Sternlicht’s defense attorney attributed the jury’s decision to find Sternlicht not guilty on all counts to O’Donnell’s “persuasive” expert testimony.