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Christa Pike is the Only Woman on Tennessee's Death Row

The brutal killing of her schoolmate sealed her deadly fate.

Mug shot of convicted murderer Christa Pike.
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  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

In 1995, 18-year-old Christa Pike murdered her Job Corps classmate, 19-year-old Colleen Slemmer. After being at large for two days, the conviction of her especially 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 the 1972 Furman v. Georgia case, which invalidated all the existing legal constructions for the death penalty in America.

But what drove Pike to commit such an atrocious act of violence? And how has her fate unfolded?

Christa Pike's Early Life

Christa Pike didn't have an easy childhood. Born in West Virginia in 1976, she experienced a lot of neglect as an infant. Her parents were in a rocky on-again-off-again marriage which struggled under the weight of infidelity and declining mental health.

Allegedly, Pike was left to crawl around the house through pet waste while her parents were focused on other things, and her mother was dedicated to maintaining her partying lifestyle, even as her toddler began to suffer severe seizures.

Pike was often taken care of by her grandmother on her father's side. Unfortunately, this stabilizing bond was lost in 1988 when her grandmother passed away. As a result, at the age of 12 years old, Pike attempted suicide for the very first time.

Receiving practically no support in the wake of her attempt, Pike's life only further crumbled, falling into a disturbing cycle of violence. Pike experienced abuse in her mother's home when one of her mother's boyfriends punched her in the face.  Not long after, Pike was accused of molesting one of her young half-sisters while staying with her father.

For her own part, Pike claimed to have her own history of being sexually assaulted, but those close to her are reluctant to believe her stories, as they believe her to be a pathological liar.

Despite having promise as a bright child, her tumultuous life at home meant that she was changing schools frequently. Unsurprisingly, her constant upheaval saw her grades take a nosedive.

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

Pike, it seemed, was on an inevitable path to tragedy.

What Did Christa Pike Do?

The Murder of Colleen Slemmer

While at Job Corps, Pike met fellow student Colleen Slemmer. Though those close to Slemmer refuted these claims, Pike became convinced that Slemmer was going to steal her boyfriend away from her. 

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

On January 12th, 1995, Pike told Slemmer that she wanted to extend an olive branch, and asked her to join her in the woods to share some marijuana. Pike, Shipp, Peterson, and Slemmer all signed out of their dormitory and headed toward the steam plant. Only three of them would return. 

Once the group arrived at their secluded getaway, Peterson stood guard while Pike and Shipp attacked Slemmer. Over the course of half an hour, the pair mocked Slemmer while beating and cutting her.

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

Christa Pike's Arrest, Trial, and Sentencing

After committing the murder, Pike returned to school and began flaunting the piece of Slemmer's skull. After 36 hours of brazen bragging, Pike was taken into custody by the police.

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

Once arrested, Pike quickly confessed to torturing and killing Slemmer. However, she asserted that her death wasn't planned, and was simply a result of a scare tactic that got out of control.

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

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

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

Naturally, Pike was unhappy with the verdict. In response, she launched an appeal of her conviction in the Tennessee state courts in June of 2001.

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

However, on July 8th, Pike changed her mind yet again, and her lawyers filed a motion to ask for the appeal process to be reimplemented. While this motion was initially denied, 17 days before Pike's execution, a three-judge panel ruled that the proceedings should be continued.

Pike requested another new trial in December of 2008, but this request was denied. As Pike was returned to death row, all of her appeals within the State of Tennessee had been exhausted.

In May of 2014, Pike's lawyers entered an appeal in the federal court system. Her team wanted a commutation of her sentence from death to prison, due to ineffective assistance of counsel, Pike's struggle with mental illness, and on the grounds that capital punishment is unconstitutional. This appeal was rejected on all counts, and commutation was denied.

In August of 2019, Pike tried yet again to appeal on the federal level. However, the three-judge panel unanimously denied relief.

Christa Pike's Continuing Crimes

Prison didn't help to mellow out Pike's violent tendencies. On August 24th, 2001, Pike attacked fellow inmate Patricia Jones. Wielding a shoe string, Pike nearly strangled Jones to death. In 2004, this attack resulted in Pike being convicted of attempted first degree murder.

With mounting charges and no hope of relief, Pike was apparently becoming desperate. In March of 2012, it came to light that Pike had plans to escape prison with the help of two men: personal trainer Donald Kohut and corrections office Justin Heflin.

Kohut met Pike through a series of letters which began in early 2011. By July, Kohut was frequently traveling from New Jersey to Tennessee to visit Pike in person. Kohut helped to 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, though an unsealed indictment outlines a plan involving a traced and duplicated prison key. Prison staff found out about Pike's plot fairly early on and were able to thwart her escape before it was even attempted.

Kohut was charged with bribery and conspiracy to commit escape. Heflin was charged with the same, in addition to official misconduct. There was no evidence that Pike took any part in the escape plan other than simply being aware of it, and thus she was not charged in this incident.

Is Christa Pike Still Alive?

In August of 2020, the office of Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery requested that the Tennessee Supreme Court set a date for Pike's execution.

Pandemic complications and other factors allowed Pike's attorneys to have 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 of 2022, a Supreme Court ruling in the case of State v. Booker found that Tennessee's law for juveniles automatically sentenced to life in prison without a chance of parole was unconstitutional. Pike's lawyers jumped on this as a chance to have her original conviction and sentence thrown out.

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

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