It was the 4th of November, 1997, when police in Sherwood, Arkansas, were alerted to an apartment located just a couple of blocks away from the police station. They had been alerted to the apartment by a woman who said that she hadn’t heard from her daughter, Christina Marie Riggs, and her two grandchildren in a while. She asked police to conduct a welfare check.
When police arrived at the scene, they spotted a small red tricycle and a Radio Flyer wagon in a side yard. Nothing could have prepared them for what they found inside. They found the bodies of two children – Justin Dalton Thomas, 5, and Shelby Alexis Riggs, 2. They were pronounced dead at the scene. They also found their mother, Christina. She was unconscious but still breathing. She was rushed to North Little Rock Hospital where she was reported to be in critical condition.
In the apartment, police found a suicide note from Christina which was addressed to her mother. She wrote that she feared that her children, who all had separate fathers, would be separated after she ended her life. She also wrote that she didn’t want her children growing up knowing that she had taken her own life. It was now evident that this had been an attempted murder-suicide.
Christina would fail in the suicide and after regaining consciousness at hospital, she was charged with two counts of murder. Meanwhile, Justin and Shelby’s bodies were transported to the local medical examiner’s office for a cause of death to be determined. According to the responding officers, there were no evident signs of trauma. It simply looked as though the children were asleep.
The grim murders completely shocked the small community of Sherwood. In fact, it was the first homicide of the year. In 1996, there had only been one killing and the year before that, there had been none. Christina’s family said that they couldn’t comprehend what had happened, adding that the actions of Christina certainly did not “fit her personality.”
The following day, Christina appeared in court where she pleaded innocent by reason of mental defect to the murders. As she was led into the court room, she appeared to be distraught. During the hearing, her defence lawyer, John Wesley Hall, did not request bail and instead said that his client would be better off in jail. He said: “It’s just her mental condition. She’s obviously quite stressed…”1
A couple of weeks later, the cause of death for Justin and Shelby would be released. Justin had died from a drug overdose and smothering while Shelby had been smothered to death. Christina had worked as a nurse and at the crime scene, police had found three syringes on the night stand on the table next to the bed. The syringes contained morphine and potassium chloride. 2
Meanwhile, Christina was sent for a psychological examination to determine whether she was fit to stand trial. According to Christina, she had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after the Oklahoma City bombing. As mentioned, Christina had worked as a nurse and she tended to a number of the victims of the bombing back in April of 1995. According to her defence lawyer, in the aftermath of the bombing, Christina fell into a deep depression.
Christina had claimed that on the day of the bomb, she went to the destroyed building to provide medical assistance. However, the Veterans Administration hospital where Christina had worked at the time said that she was off-duty on the day of the bomb. They said that she had been paid 4 and a half hours overtime for helping workers at St. Anthony Hospital. There had only been four employees that went to the bomb site in the aftermath and Christina was not one of them.3
Medical examiners would determine that Christina had the mental capacity to understand her actions and could assist in her defence. She was ordered to stand trial for the two murders. She was ordered to stand trial in June of 1998 and prosecutors announced that they would be seeking the death penalty against Christina.4
During opening statements, Christina’s defence said that they were not going to be disputing whether Christina had killed her two children. However, he said that they were putting forward the theory that Christina had suffered from acute depression and had come to believe that it was in the children’s best interest to kill them as well as kill herself. He said: “In her state of mind, taking the children with her was the best thing for them…” He said that she loved her children but had been suicidal for more than a year.
The defence also said that there were other factors which added to Christina’s frame of mind at the time of the murders. They revealed that she had suffered years of sexual abuse at the hands of a relative when she was a young girl and that the family had a history of depression with a great-grandfather who ended his own life and an older sister who attempted suicide. He said that the two fathers of Justin and Shelby were unsupportive both emotionally and financially and that Christina was struggling to make ends meet.
He said that Justin in particular was difficult to handle because he was hyperactive. He revealed that when Christina injected Justin, he began to cry from the pain caused by the potassium chloride. “She completed the act to put him out of his misery,” said Christina’s defence lawyer.
This opening statement was countered with the opening statement of Chief Deputy Prosecutor Melody Piazza, who described Christina injecting Justin and then smothering him and his sister with pillows. She revealed that Justin had cried out: “Momma, no. Momma. Momma,” but his pleas fell on deaf ears. She said that the prosecution believed that Christina hated her son and that she left her children by themselves while she went out and played karaoke.5
Ultimately, the defence were unable to sway the jury in their favour and they found Christina Marie Riggs guilty of the murders of Justin and Shelby. During the penalty phase of the trial, Christina unexpectedly turned to the jury and said: “I want to die. I want to be with my babies. I want you to give me the death penalty.” The jury complied and sentenced Christina to death.6
On the 30th of April, 2000, that death sentence was carried out. When asked if she had any final words, she said: “No words can express just how sorry I am for taking the lives of my babies. No way can I make up for or take away the pain I have caused everyone who knew and loved them.” Ironically, Christina had been executed with potassium chloride, the very same drug that she had used to murder her son.
- Baxter Bulletin, 8 November, 1997 – “Nurse Pleads Innocent to Killing Her Children”
- Baxter Bulletin, 21 November, 1997 – “Coroner Says Children Died of Suffocation, Drug Overdose”
- Baxter Bulletin, 31 December, 1997 – “Woman, Claiming Bombing Trauma, is Ruled Competent”
- The Daily Oklahoman, 24 April, 1998 – “Mother Pleads Insanity”
- Baxter Bulletin, 26 June, 1998 – “Depression Led to Violence”
- The Sentinel, 1 July, 1998 – “Nurse Convicted of Killing Kids”