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Christa's Story

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I had more than my fair share of trauma growing up, and I realized that so many others have that didn't commit violent crimes. I don't use that or anything else as an excuse for what I did. There is no excuse for what I did…. I take full responsibility for my actions, and regret everything that happened that night. If I could take it all back, I would. And not only to get myself out of prison. I know that's what a lot of people assume. I've already spent a lifetime in here, and I have no expectations of ever leaving these fences. That’s not what this is about… I only want my situation to be looked at now through the eyes of logic instead of anger and answered the question of if I deserve to die for a crime committed by three people...I’m not even close to being the same person I was over 25 years ago.

Christa Pike is the only woman on Tennessee’s Death Row for a crime she committed when she was 18 years old. Christa suffers from severe mental illnesses and physical brain damage, conditions she has experienced since childhood that are compounded by physical and sexual abuse, violence, and neglect she endured by members of her family, their friends, and acquaintances. Christa did not receive the medical and psychological care and attention she needed from her family or state actors.

 

Christa’s young age at the time of the offense, her trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) from abuse, and her untreated severe mental illness do not excuse her actions. But her experiences, especially when taken together, offer an explanation.

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Christa was born with organic brain damage and a malformation of the brain caused by alcohol abuse while her mother was pregnant. The signs of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder began to manifest very early in Christa with seizures when she was an infant.

 

Growing up, Christa suffered an “almost unbearably abusive background,” according to Dr. Jonathan Pincus, Professor of Neurology at Georgetown University. Christa was repeatedly beaten and abused by her father, maternal grandmother, and several of her mother’s boyfriends, including one boyfriend who was charged with assault for punching Christa in the face.

She also had an unstable upbringing. According to a supplemental observations submitted with a petition: “Christa was shuffled back and forth between her mother in North Carolina and her father in West Virgina … By the time she obtained her GED in 1993, Christa had changed schools 12 times.”

 

By the time Christa was 18, she had been raped twice, physically abused by at least seven different family members, and sexually abused by at least three individuals. There are strong indications that Christa had been sexually abused by her grandmother’s boyfriend starting at the age of two. When Christa was 9, she was raped by a man who lived near her family. In both instances, state actors failed to report the incident or take action against the signs of abuse.

Not long after, Christa attempted suicide by overdosing on Tylenol. She was then diagnosed with depression, but never received proper medical or mental health treatment. At age 12, Christa attempted suicide again following the death of her beloved maternal grandmother, the only person she felt was truly kind and nurturing toward her in childhood.

 

At age 13, Christa was sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend. Following the assault, Christa was removed from her home by Children’s Services but returned home after only three months with minimal follow up. At age 17, Christa was raped again by a stranger. Hospital records confirm the rape, but only minimal investigations followed from local authorities.

Throughout her childhood, Christa developed Bipolar Disorder and suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome as a result of her abuse, but she never received the appropriate medical treatment or care. Instead of getting the treatment she desperately needed, Christa was instead punished for acting out. Even when she was encouraged to seek help, such as following her attempted suicide, her parents did not take her to follow-on appointments. Furthermore, no state actors followed up as to why Christa missed appointments and stopped care despite documented concerns about her health. It was only once she was in prison that she was properly diagnosed and treated.

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In 1994, saddled with trauma and untreated mental health conditions, Christa enrolled in a Job Corps training program in Knoxville. Christa was studying to become a nurse like her mother. She did not know that the Job Corps program, despite promises of gaining job skills, was a toxic atmosphere of violence where students regularly carried razor blades and box cutters for protection. This environment and lack of security likely deepened Christa’s underlying trauma and undiagnosed severe mental illness.

 

In 1995, Christa committed a terrible crime at the age of 18 that left one woman dead. Christa met the victim, Colleen Slemmer, in the Job Corps program. On the night of the crime, Christa, Colleen, Tadaryl Shipp (17 years old), and another student, Shadolla Peterson (18 years old), went out in a group. The night took a tragic turn when an argument quickly escalated and spiraled out of control and three of the youth turned against Colleen. The next day, Christa admitted to police that she had killed Colleen.

 

Today, advancements in neuroscience and brain imaging technologies show that brains are not fully developed until the mid 20s, which means that individuals continue to make impulsive, unsound decisions into their late teens and early 20s. This risky behavior is aggravated in group settings where teens are vulnerable to peer pressure, as a forensic psychiatrist testified was the case with the murder of Colleen.

 

Recognizing the latest science on brain development, in 2018, the American Bar Association passed a resolution opposing the use of the death penalty for individuals 21 years old or younger at the time of the offense.

 

For the crime, Tadaryl Shipp was convicted to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years. Shadolla Peterson was freed on parole with no additional prison time. Christa Pike, with a history of severe mental illness and repeated sexual and physical abuse and violence, was sentenced to death in 1996, just a few weeks after she turned 20.

 

Given what we know today about adolescent brain development, the health issues resulting from brain damage and untreated mental health conditions, and the impact of ACEs—particularly for women—it is unlikely Christa would have received this same sentence today. Instead, she has spent the last 24 years in solitary confinement in a Tennessee prison with her execution date to be set soon.

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Listen to Christa talk about extreme sentencing for women as part of a project with the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, The Sentencing Project, and
Harm Reduction International.

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