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Christa Pike is the only woman on death row in Tennessee

In 1995, 18-year-old Christa Pike murdered her Job Corps classmate, 19-year-old Colleen Slemmer. After two days on the loose, the conviction of her particularly heinous crime led to her becoming the only woman on Tennessee’s death row. She was also the youngest woman in the United States to be sentenced to death since 1972 Furman vs. Georgia case, which invalidated all existing legal structures for the death penalty in America.

But what drove Pike to commit such a heinous act of violence? And how did her fate unfold?

Christa Pike did not have an easy childhood. She was born in West Virginia in 1976 and experienced a lot of neglect as an infant. Her parents had a rocky marriage, struggling under the weight of infidelity and declining mental health.

Pike reportedly had to crawl around the house through pet waste while her parents focused on other things, and her mother was dedicated to maintaining her partying lifestyle, even as her toddler suffered severe seizures.

Pike was often cared for by her paternal grandmother. Sadly, this stabilizing bond was lost in 1988 when her grandmother passed away. As a result, Pike attempted suicide for the very first time at the age of 12.

With virtually no support in the aftermath of her attempt, Pike’s life only continued to crumble and spiral into a disturbing cycle of violence. Pike suffered abuse at her mother’s home when one of her mother’s boyfriends punched her in the face. Not long after, Pike was accused of abusing one of her young half-sisters while she was staying with her father.

For her part, Pike claimed to have her own history of sexual abuse, but those close to her are reluctant to believe her stories because they believe she is a pathological liar.

Despite showing promise as a bright child, her tumultuous home life caused her to frequently change schools. It’s no surprise that her grades plummeted due to her constant anxiety.

When she was a sophomore in high school, she spent a year in a juvenile facility. Here she learned about the government’s Job Corps program, which was designed to help low-income adolescents learn essential job skills. She began attending the Knoxville, Tennessee Job Corps program in the fall of 1994. It was here that she met a boy named Tadaryl Shipp. When the couple began a romantic relationship, they developed a keen interest in the occult.

It seemed like Pike was on an inevitable path to tragedy.

At Job Corps, Pike met fellow student Colleen Slemmer. Although those close to Slemmer refuted these claims, Pike became convinced that Slemmer would steal her boyfriend from her.

Overcome with jealousy, Pike devised a plan with her friend, Shadolla Peterson, to lead Slemmer to a remote steam power plant near the University of Tennessee.

On January 12, 1995, Pike told Slemmer she wanted to extend an olive branch, and asked her to go into the woods with her to share some marijuana. Pike, Shipp, Peterson and Slemmer all left their dormitory and headed towards the steam plant. Only three of them would return.

Once the group arrived at their remote refuge, Peterson stood guard while Pike and Shipp attacked Slemmer. Over the course of half an hour, the pair taunted Slemmer as they punched and cut her.

They carved a pentagram into Slemmer’s chest before Pike delivered a fatal blow to Slemmer’s head with a large piece of asphalt. As a trophy, Pike kept a piece of Slemmer’s shattered skull.

After committing the murder, Pike returned to school and began showing off the piece of Slemmer’s skull. After 36 hours of shameless bragging, Pike was taken into police custody.

The evidence was fairly irrefutable: the log confirmed that four students left the dorm and only three returned, and detectives found the skull shard in Pike’s jacket pocket.

Once arrested, Pike quickly confessed to torturing and killing Slemmer. However, she claimed that her death was unplanned and was simply the result of a scare tactic gone wrong.

The resulting trial was fairly dry, due to the rock-solid evidence and confession. Pike, charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder, was found guilty on both counts on March 22, 1996.

Eight days later, Pike was sentenced to death by electrocution for murder and 25 years in prison for conspiracy.

For his part in the crime, Shipp received a life sentence with the possibility of parole, plus 25 years. Peterson, who had become an informant, later pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact and was only given probation.

Naturally, Pike was not satisfied with the verdict. In response, she appealed her conviction in the Tennessee state courts in June 2001.

In June 2002, against the advice of her lawyers, she withdrew her appeal and asked to be executed by electrocution. This request was granted and the execution date was set for August 19.

However, on July 8, Pike changed her mind again, and her attorneys filed a motion asking that the appeals process be reimplemented. Although this request was initially denied, a three-judge panel ruled seventeen days before Pike’s execution that the proceedings should continue.

Pike requested a new trial in December 2008, but the request was denied. When Pike was returned to death row, all her appeals within the state of Tennessee had been exhausted.

In May 2014, Pike’s attorneys appealed to the federal court system. Her team sought a commutation of her sentence from the death penalty to prison because of the ineffective assistance of counsel, Pike’s struggles with mental illness and because the death penalty is unconstitutional. This appeal was dismissed on all counts and the commutation was denied.

In August 2019, Pike tried to appeal again at the federal level. However, the three-judge panel unanimously denied damages.

Prison did nothing to assuage Pike’s violent tendencies. On August 24, 2001, Pike attacked fellow inmate Patricia Jones. Pike almost choked Jones to death with a shoelace. In 2004, this attack resulted in Pike being convicted of attempted first-degree murder.

With mounting accusations and no hope for relief, Pike apparently grew desperate. In March 2012, it was revealed that Pike had plans to escape from prison with the help of two men: personal trainer Donald Kohut and corrections officer Justin Heflin.

Kohut met Pike through a series of letters beginning in early 2011. In July, Kohut traveled regularly from New Jersey to Tennessee to visit Pike in person. Kohut helped devise the escape plan and roped Heflin into it under the promise of money and gifts.

The exact details of the escape plan have not been released, although an unsealed indictment outlines a plan involving a tracked and duplicated prison key. Prison staff learned of Pike’s plot quite early and were able to thwart her escape before it was even attempted.

Kohut was charged with bribery and conspiracy to escape. Heflin was accused of the same thing, in addition to official misconduct. There was no evidence that Pike had played any role in the escape plan other than her awareness of it, and therefore she was not charged in this incident.

In August 2020, the office of Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery asked the Tennessee Supreme Court to set a date for Pike’s execution.

Pandemic complications and other factors gave Pike’s attorneys more time to argue against execution. When Pike’s legal team filed a motion to oppose the execution date and request a certificate of commutation, the motion was ultimately denied.

In November 2022, the Supreme Court will rule in the case of State vs. Booker found that Tennessee’s law for juveniles automatically sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole was unconstitutional. Pike’s attorneys used this as an opportunity to have her original conviction and sentence overturned.

Although they argued that Pike was young and mentally troubled, Knox County Criminal Court Judge Scott Green denied Pike’s request on the grounds that Pike was 18 years old at the time of the murder and therefore a legal adult.

A date for Pike’s execution has not yet been set. If she ever sees an execution, she will be the first woman to be executed in Tennessee in 200 years.