Christa Pike, Only Woman on Tennessee's Death Row, Fights Execution

Attorneys for the only woman on Tennessee's death row are asking the state Supreme Court to recommend that Gov. Bill Lee commute her sentence to life.

The Tennessee Attorney General's Office asked the high court in August last year to set an execution date for 45-year-old Christa Gail Pike, noting she has exhausted her appeals.

In a court filing last week, Pike's attorneys asked the court to commute their client's sentence or delay her execution, citing her age at the time of the crime, "severe" mental illness, and traumatic upbringing.

Pike was 18 when she and two others lured Colleen Slemmer to a remote spot on the University of Tennessee's agriculture campus and killed her in January 1995. All four were taking part in a jobs program for troubled adolescents at the time.

But only Pike was sentenced to death—Pike's then-boyfriend Tadaryl Shipp was 17 and sentenced to life imprisonment. He will be eligible for release in 2028.

Christa Pike
Attorneys for Christa Pike, the only woman on Tennessee's death row, are asking the state Supreme Court to recommend Gov. Bill Lee commute her sentence to life. Tennessee Department of Corrections

Shadolla Peterson, who was 19 at the time, pleaded guilty to being an accessory and received a six-year probation sentence.

"Had she been slightly younger at the time of the crime, like her codefendant Shipp, Christa Pike would have been ineligible for the death penalty," her legal team noted in the court filing.

They cited Roper v Simmons, the landmark 2005 Supreme Court case that abolished the juvenile death penalty.

The court drew the line at 18, but Pike's attorneys said it should extend to 18-year-olds as scientific research shows the brain isn't fully developed until after the age of 20.

They also said Shipp was the ringleader in the killing, and abusive towards Pike.

"Mr. Shipp was 17 years old at the time of Ms. Slemmer's death. Christa Pike was 18," they wrote.

"That is the difference between a death sentence and parole eligibility in 2028. That difference cannot be equated with increased maturity or brain development. Christa was not more mature or more responsible than Mr. Shipp. At the time of the crime, Christa was only a year older than Shipp, and because of that slight difference in age, Shipp was ineligible for the death penalty."

Pike's attorneys also argued that their client suffers from severe mental illness and endured abuse, neglect and was raped twice as a child.

"Before her arrest at age eighteen, Pike had a horrific childhood," they wrote in the filing. "Before she was even born, she suffered brain damage. Then, from the time she was a small child,11, she endured abuse, neglect, multiple violent rapes, and suffered from severe mental illness.

"With these factors working against her, she was never able to develop into a functional adult. In fact, she was only eighteen at the time of the offense and, while she was technically barely legally eligible for the ultimate punishment under current Tennessee law, her immaturity and severe mental illness mandate commutation from execution."

They argue it is too soon to set an execution date for Pike because measures imposed due to the COVID-19 have prevented her from undergoing an in-person mental health evaluation.

They also argued that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights needs more time to complete an investigation into whether Pike's human rights have been violated.

If executed, Pike would be the first woman Tennessee puts to death in over 200 years, according to the court documents.