In April 2008, Army Pfc. George D.B. MacDonald was prescribed the smoking cessation drug Chantix. A month later, on May 18, 2008, MacDonald killed private Rick Bulmer in a Fort Benning, Ga. barracks.
At the time of the incident, MacDonald was a 19-year-old former Eagle Scout who had been selected for the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School. Comparatively, Bulmer was a 23-year-old California native in his first days of Army basic training.
MacDonald was originally sentenced to life without parole before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces overturned his murder conviction in 2009. Now, however, it is reported that he could regain his freedom under a new plea agreement; unidentified relatives of MacDonald’s have confirmed that he will plead guilty to Bulmer’s murder. A military judge will hear the case at Fort Benning on Sept. 8 of this year.
While MacDonald’s relatives stress his potential to rehabilitate and his remorse for the act, Bulmer’s family members are outraged by the possibility of MacDonald receiving a lesser sentence. “It’s a mind-blower,” Bulmer’s mother, Wendy Smith stated. “We don’t understand it. He cold-bloodedly killed my son. He knew what he was doing and . . . he should take his punishment.”
Nonetheless, MacDonald’s defense attorneys and relatives maintain that the act was caused by Chantix’s side effects; it is MacDonald’s testimony that he began having vivid nightmares after taking the drug. MacDonald’s brother James – a soldier who was also prescribed Chantix – wrote in a clemency request in 2010: “I remember commenting to my brother that life started to feel like a video game, in that I was disconnected from my body. [George] agreed that he felt the same way."
James MacDonald committed suicide in 2013.
At the September hearing – which will transpire over the course of several days –the prosecution will focus on the impact of MacDonald’s crime, as well as the specific details of the crime itself: that Bulmer was killed while resting on his bunk, and that MacDonald admitted to thinking for about 30 seconds before stabbing Bulmer more than 50 times.
MacDonald’s defense attorneys, on the other hand, will put on character witnesses as well as information about Chantix and its side effects, particularly MacDonald’s own account of the events. “I snapped and didn’t like it,” MacDonald wrote. “I was stretched and it made me crazy."
After more than 2,700 civil claims were filed against Pfizer – the pharmaceutical company that unveiled Chantix in 2006 – the FDA issued a “black box” warning, citing the drug’s “serious neuropsychiatric” side effects. One of the side effects identified by the FDA was ‘hostility’; many of the civil claims filed included allegations of Chantix causing suicides or suicidal thoughts.
In 2014, Pfizer responded to the controversy, claiming that “ . . . there is no reliable scientific evidence that Chantix causes serious neuropsychiatric events including those at issue here.”
In 2015, the FDA updated Chantix’s label, noting that "studies did not show an increased risk of neuropsychiatric side effects with Chantix.”