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Christa Gail Pike, on death row, fights conviction in prison attack

11:17 AM, Apr 13, 2012   |    comments
Christa Gail Pike appears in court Thursday to fight a conviction in a 2001 attack on annother inmate. Pike, 36, is on death row for the 1995 torture, murder and mutilation of Colleen Slemmer. - Dipti Vaidya / The Tennessean
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By Nicole Young and Brian Haas | The Tennessean

Tennessee's only woman on death row spent much of her time in court Thursday smiling.

Her lawyer fought to overturn an attempted murder conviction, arguing that her trial lawyers were ineffective and the evidence against her insufficient to convict her of nearly murdering another prison inmate.

Christa Gail Pike, 36, is on death row for the 1995 torture, murder and mutilation of Colleen Slemmer at a Knoxville Job Corps Center.

But she was in Davidson County Criminal Court on Thursday challenging her 2004 conviction for nearly strangling inmate Patricia Jones with a shoestring. The two were housed in the Tennessee Prison for Women when Pike attacked Jones in 2001.

For nearly an hour, Pike's former defense attorney, John Ford, answered questions from Pike's current attorney, Graham Prichard, and prosecutor Kathy Morante in Judge Randall Wyatt's courtroom. At the end of the hearing, Wyatt said he would release a written order in the case in the next two to three weeks.

At the heart of Prichard's argument for ineffective counsel was the fact that Ford declined to call an expert witness to speak about a brain injury Pike had received. But, during cross-examination by Morante, Ford admitted that the doctor's testimony would have hurt the defense more than it would have helped.

"You know that the particularly depraved and brutal details surrounding the crime for which she is on death row would have come out?" Morante asked Ford. "The jury would have heard that Ms. Pike had hit Ms. Slemmer's head so hard with asphalt that pieces of asphalt were embedded in it, that she took a part of Ms. Slemmer's skull and danced and sang with it, that she was (accused of) sex abuse ... and that she wrote a letter after her conviction saying she couldn't believe she had gotten the death penalty for killing (Slemmer.)"

From the stand, Ford said, "Yes, that would not have helped the defense."

According to court records, Pike had an ongoing feud with Jones, whom she accused of continually crossing her and snitching. In phone calls recorded by the prison to her mother, Pike laughed and bragged about the attack and vowed to finish the job the next time.

"I betcha if she gets near me, I'm gonna do it again," she told her mother in 2001.

On Thursday, security at Wyatt's courtroom was beefed up because of a foiled escape attempt involving Pike in March. The inmate made headlines when, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation says, she tried to break out of jail with the help of a Tennessee Prison for Women guard and a friend from New Jersey. The TBI says the pair planned to copy prison keys.

Security officers lined Wyatt's courtroom, and another guard sat just outside the locked courtroom doors. Before people were allowed inside, the officer would search their bags or perform a pat-down search of their clothing.

Contact Nicole Young at 615-259-8091 or nyoung@tennessean.com. Contact Brian Haas at 615-726-8968 or bhaas@tennessean.com.

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