Attorneys for Christa Pike, the only woman on Tennessee’s death row, filed a motion on August 30 to re-open her appeals based on a recent decision from the Tennessee Supreme Court. In 2022, the Court ruled in State v. Booker that mandatory life sentences in homicide cases are unconstitutional when imposed on juveniles, drawing on U.S. Supreme Court precedent that held that juveniles are less mature, more vulnerable to peer pressure, and generally less culpable than adults. Ms. Pike’s attorneys argue that Booker’s reasoning applies to all youthful defendants, not just minors. Ms. Pike was 18 when she participated in the murder of Colleen Slemmer in 1995. “If the courts agree that a 17-year-old is not eligible for mandatory life in prison due to well-established adolescent brain science, we should not death-sentence an 18-year-old,” said Kelly Gleason, an attorney for Ms. Pike. “There is no hard line of maturity or difference between the brain development of a 17-year-old and 18-year-old.” Trauma psychologist Dr. Bethany Brand, who examined Ms. Pike, stated that Ms. Pike experienced “one of the most tragic and profound chronic abuse histories” Dr. Brand had encountered in her line of work. Ms. Gleason argued that executing Ms. Pike for a crime she committed as a teenager would “contradict Tennessee’s deeply held beliefs in the value of human life and redemption, as well as the scientific consensus that youthful brains are not fully formed, especially for young people who experience severe abuse, neglect, and trauma.”

The age cutoff created a sentencing disparity in Ms. Pike’s own case. Her co-defendant Tadaryl Shipp, whom courts deemed equally culpable for the murder, received life in prison with the possibility of parole because he was 17 at the time of the crime. Mr. Shipp is only a few months younger than Ms. Pike and will be eligible for parole in 2026. In a 2019 ruling in Ms. Pike’s case, Sixth Circuit Judge Jane Stranch wrote that the execution of a person who was 18 at the time of the offense is likely unconstitutional, but that limitations on federal review of state criminal cases prevent habeas courts from granting relief on those grounds.  

Ms. Pike’s case is a statistical outlier in several ways. Sentenced in 1996, she is among the youngest women in the United States to receive the death penalty in the modern era. She is the last person in Tennessee sentenced to death for a crime committed at age 18, and would be the first person executed in Tennessee for a crime committed at 18 since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. All eight men sentenced to death for a crime committed at age 18 in Tennessee later had their sentences vacated. If her appeals fail, Ms. Pike would be the first woman executed in Tennessee in over two centuries.  

Ms. Pike has also filed a separate lawsuit against the Tennessee Department of Corrections based on her isolation as the only woman on the state’s death row, arguing that she has been kept in functional solitary confinement for over 25 years. Men on Tennessee’s death row are segregated from non-capital prisoners, but socialize and work together. The complaint alleges that by contrast, because she is the only woman, Ms. Pike has had “no social engagement with other incarcerated individuals or prison staff, no educational or religious programming, and nearly no physical contact with another human being.” The last woman sentenced to death in Tennessee besides Ms. Pike, Gaile Owens, was permitted to live among the prison’s general population before she was released in 2010. Attorneys Brian Roark and Angie Bergman, who represent Ms. Pike in her civil case, argue that Tennessee’s policy of segregating death row prisoners does not make sense as applied to women, and has exacerbated Ms. Pike’s existing mental health conditions. They shared that Ms. Pike “filed this lawsuit to be able to share a meal, participate in group therapy, work at a job, or have some minimal interaction with others.”  


Evan Mealins, Christa Pike, who would be first woman exe­cut­ed in 200 years, moves to reopen appeal, The Tennessean, August 30, 2023; Gregory Raucoules, Woman con­vict­ed in 1995 Knoxville mur­der asks death sen­tence be vacat­ed, WATE, August 30, 2023; WBIR Staff, Attorneys ask pros­e­cu­tors to recon­sid­er death sen­tence for Christa Pike again, WBIR, August 30, 2023; State v. Booker, 656 S.W.3d 49 (Tenn. 2022); Equal Justice Initiative, Tennessee Supreme Court Strikes Down Mandatory Life Sentences for Children, November 23, 2022; Pike v. Gross, 936 F.3d 372 (6th Cir. 2019).