KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — A woman sentenced to death when she was a teen for a 1995 murder in Knoxville is asking that her death sentence be vacated, citing recent rulings that factored youth and mental illness or brain damage into sentencing.
Christa Gail Pike and two others were convicted in the brutal murder of 19-year-old Colleen Slemmer when all four teens were participating in Job Corps, a federal jobs training program for troubled adolescents, in Knoxville.
Pike, 18 at the time, became the youngest woman to be sentenced to death in the United States since 1972. Tadaryl Shipp, 17 at the time, was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole plus 25 years. Shadolla Peterson, 19, received probation after turning informant for the state’s case against Pike and Shipp.
Attorneys for Pike filed a motion in Knox County on August 30 requesting that her post-conviction proceeding be reopened to consider that the death sentence was unconstitutional.
The motion cites a recent landmark ruling by the Tennessee Supreme Court in State v. Booker which declared mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of homicide to be unconstitutional. That case upheld that the adolescent brain, which is not yet fully developed, and circumstances like mental illness can be factored in when determining a proportionate sentence for crimes committed by juveniles.
The 26-page motion argues that Pike shares circumstances that were considered mitigating factors in State v. Booker, such as a traumatic childhood and mental illness.
It states that she was born with brain damage, endured horrific abuse and multiple violent rapes as a child, and was not diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder until she was an adult. Evidence of Pike’s abuse and trauma were never presented in the murder trial.
It also cites the declining number of capital punishment cases in Tennessee and the recent sentencing of 25-year-old Michael Cummins to life in prison for the mass killing of eight people in West Tennessee after brain scans showed he had significant mental problems.
Attorneys also argue that the sentence was disproportionate especially when compared to the sentences of other women who killed more than one victim. The motion notes that 23 women convicted of killing two or more people are currently serving life sentences.
On August 24, 2001, Pike strangled inmate Patricia Jones with a shoestring nearly choking her to death. She was convicted of attempted first-degree murder on August 12, 2004.
If Pike is executed by the state, she would be the first woman executed in Tennessee since 1819 and the first person executed who was 18 at the time of the crime in Tennessee since the death penalty was reinstituted in 1972.
Of the more than 3,000 first-degree homicide convictions in Tennessee, only eight were 18 at the time of the offense and sentenced to death. All eight later had their death sentences vacated.
The Tennessee Department of Correction currently lists the parole eligibility date for Shipp, who was 17 at the time of Slemmer’s murder, as December 8, 2026.