They Kill Women, Don't They?
Arkansas moves toward its first execution of a woman.
April 9, 1999
NEWPORT — An eternity ago, Christina Riggs spent her days shuttling her two pre-school children to day care, working as a licensed practical nurse and managing a calamitous love life.
Now her days are filled with monotony, silence, solitude and soul-crushing guilt.
Riggs was convicted last year of smothering her two preschool-aged children in their beds at the family's Sherwood home. She is the only inmate on the state's newly inaugurated Death Row for women at the Correction Department's McPherson Unit at Newport.
She could become the first woman executed in Arkansas in modern times.
But there's another distinction that sets Riggs apart from the rest of Arkansas's condemned inmates. While many claw desperately for life through legal appeals and appeals of appeals, Riggs is what in the death penalty business they call "a volunteer."
She says she has appealed her death sentence only reluctantly.
And, the condemned woman says, she's eager to die.
"I'll be with my children and with God. I'll be where there's no more pain," Riggs said in a recent interview at the Newport prison. "Maybe I'll find some peace."
Riggs is one of 48 condemned women in American prisons. Death sentences for women are rare, and actual executions are even more infrequent.
The state of Arkansas has never executed a woman. But, according to Watt Espy, an independent Alabama death penalty researcher, at least three women were executed in Arkansas before the Civil War.
Executions were the responsibility of the counties until 1913 when the state took them over. Since then, the names of only three other women have appeared on the death list. All eventually had their sentences reduced.
Riggs meets with her infrequent visitors in a visitation hall not far from the cell where she has been quartered in solitude since her conviction.
Handcuffed as she always is when outside her cell, Riggs talks with visitors through a thick clear plastic window and over the hum of the visitation hall's soft-drink machines. A guard stands just out of earshot.
Prison food, she said, is good. Too good, really. Time on the death list has aggravated a lifelong struggle with her weight, she said.
"I've put on 30 pounds since I've been here," Riggs said smiling.
Dressed in off-white prison scrubs and sneakers, Riggs wears a little makeup and has taken pains to curl her hair — using rolled-up tube socks as curlers.
"You'd be surprised at what you learn in prison," she said.
Riggs learned the sock-curling technique in the Pulaski County Jail and later taught it to Whitewater defendant Susan McDougal while they were both being held there.
On Death Row, Riggs said, she's trying hard to deal with what she did to her children, Justin, 2, and Shelby, 5.
Pictures of the children decorate a mirror in her cell. At times, she speaks of them almost as if they were still alive.
"Sometimes I can't think about them," Riggs said as tears rolled down her cheeks. "It's like they're being ripped away from me all over again."
During her trial, Riggs blamed chronic, acute depression for the state of mind that led her to drug and suffocate her children and then to unsuccessfully attempt suicide.
But Pulaski County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley said the jury saw a much different Christina Riggs.
"Essentially, what the jury saw was that she was self-centered, that she viewed the children as an inconvenience and an interference with what she wanted to pursue," Jegley said. "She placed her interests above those of the children."
Alone in the isolation of her cell, the condemned woman said, Death Row is a state of mind. She continues to be haunted by the memory of her children.
"A lot of regret. That's what goes through my mind, day-in, day-out," Riggs said. "God's punishing me. He let me live so I would suffer."
By her own account, the torment of the last few years came after a lifetime of sexual abuse, depression and failed relationships.
A native of Lawton, Okla., Riggs lived most of her life in Oklahoma City. According to a journal Riggs recently began in prison, her stepbrother sexually abused from about age 7 to 13.
At 13, she was also abused by a neighbor, she said. Within a year, she began drinking, smoking cigarettes and marijuana.
"I felt that no boy liked me because of my weight, so I became sexually promiscuous because I thought that was the only way I could have a boyfriend," she wrote.
By age 16, Riggs was pregnant, and in January 1988 she gave the baby boy up for adoption.
After high school, she became a licensed practical nurse and worked part-time as a home care nurse and full-time at a Veterans Administration hospital.
After dating several men, including a sailor and a bar bouncer, Riggs began a relationship with Timothy Thompson, who was stationed at Tinker Air Force Base.
In late October 1991, she learned she was pregnant again. She told Thompson about the baby the day before his discharge from the service.
According to the condemned woman's mother, Carol Thomas of Jacksonville, Thompson at first wouldn't accept the baby as his own. He moved back to his native Minnesota.
"Chrissy's luck with men was about zero to nothing," Thomas said.
Meanwhile, the pregnant woman rekindled her relationship with the sailor, Jon Riggs, while he was home on leave.
"It was great," she wrote in her prison journal. "He felt the baby's first kick. As far as he was concerned, it was his baby."
The baby, Justin, was born on June 7, 1992. His little sister would later call him Bubbie. The nickname stuck.
"As I held Justin in my arms and looked into his little face, I became so scared. Would I be a good Mom? Could I give him all he needed?" Riggs wrote.
Jon Riggs eventually moved in with her, but their relationship was troubled from the start, the condemned woman wrote. She became pregnant again, and the couple married in July 1993.
But bitter disappointment visited again. Christina Riggs had a miscarriage on her wedding night.
The marriage teetered on the verge of divorce, Riggs wrote, and she became depressed and suicidal, partly, she says, as a result of prescribed birth control medication.
A doctor prescribed the anti-depressant Prozac. But when she began to feel better, she stopped taking the drug.
Carol Thomas said her daughter confided in her about the depression, but minimized its effect.
"She's always been that way. If I pushed her hard she might get mad and tell me what was going on," Thomas said. But generally Riggs kept her feelings to herself, her mother said.
In the spring of 1994, Riggs became pregnant again, and in December, Shelby Alexis Riggs was born. Her family called the child Sissie.
"We were so happy. she was so beautiful. I didn't think things could get any better. (Jon) cried. I cried. He was full of so much love for her. The way he looked at her," Riggs wrote in the journal.
When a terrorist bomb ripped apart Oklahoma City's Murray Federal Building in April 1995, Riggs said the hospital assigned her to work at a triage station a short distance from the blast site.
Defense attorneys indicated during her trial that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result. But prosecutors contended the hospital had no record that she worked in the blast zone.
In the summer of 1995, the couple decided to move to Sherwood where her mother was then living. The couple hoped the grandmother could help with day care.
Riggs got a job at Baptist Hospital where her mother is employed as as a food service worker.
Both children had health problems. Shelby had a series of serious ear infections, and Justin's attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity made him more than a handful, Thomas said.
Eventually, the Riggs' marriage crumbled. Christina divorced Jon Riggs and moved back to Oklahoma City after the father punched Justin in the stomach so hard that the boy required medical attention, according to court documents.
Justin was crushed.
"Justin would say, 'My Daddy hurt me, and then he went away,' " Thomas recalled.
From then on, Riggs' difficult financial circumstances got worse.
Child support payments from Riggs came irregularly, court documents say.
And while Riggs worked long hours at a new job at the Arkansas Heart Hospital and at a temporary nursing agency, her child care bills mounted.
"The more you work, the more you need day care," she recalled during the prison interview. "Then you feel bad about having them in day care."
Riggs remembered dropping off her daughter Shelby at day care for the first time. The child cried as her mother walked to the car.
"She was beating on the glass, yelling, 'Mama! Mama!' " Riggs recalled.
Riggs wrote hot checks. Her car registration and insurance expired. She realized she was going under, Riggs said.
"I started out in a boat with a small hole. But the hole kept getting bigger, and no matter how hard you bail, you keep sinking," she said. "I was tired and I gave up. Suicide seemed like the only thing."
Carol Thomas said she sensed something was wrong and asked her daughter what was wrong.
"She'd just say she was tired and working too many hours," Thomas remembered.
Because Riggs' appeal is still pending, the condemned woman's lawyer, John Wesley Hall of Little Rock, allowed an interview only on the condition that she not be asked about her crime.
But court papers and trial testimony offer a chilling account of the killings.
On November 4, 1997, Riggs gathered drugs she would need. She obtained the anti-depressant Elavil from her pharmacist, the painkiller morphine and the toxic potassium chloride from the hospital where she worked.
The heart-stopping potassium chloride is the same drug used in the lethal cocktail injected into condemned inmates in the death house.
Riggs gave the children a small amount of Elavil to put them to sleep. Then she placed each of the children in their beds.
About 10 p.m., she injected Justin with undiluted potassium chloride. But unless it is diluted, the drug causes burning and pain. Justin woke and cried out in terror.
Crying herself now, she injected her son with morphine. It had no effect, and he continued to wail. She then smothered the boy with a pillow.
Next, she moved to Shelby's bed.
Riggs decided to forego the potassium chloride injection because of the pain it had caused Justin. She suffocated her daughter with a pillow.
Riggs then placed the children side-by-side on her bed and covered them with a blanket.
She wrote suicide notes to her mother and her ex-husband Jon Riggs. She took 28 Elavil tablets, normally a lethal dose, and injected herself with enough undiluted potassium chloride to kill five people. The Elavil took effect, and she fell unconscious to the floor.
It was all over by about 10:30 p.m.
The undiluted potassium chloride burned a hole in her arm as big as a silver dollar as she lay in a stupor.
After Riggs failed to show up for work the next day, Thomas telephoned her daughter's home but got no response. So she drove to her daughter's apartment and let herself in. She found the children dead, and thought Christina Riggs was dead too.
"All I could do was turn around and around and scream and holler, 'No. No. No.' " Thomas said. "There's no way to describe how I felt."
Thomas punched 911 into her cell phone.
"My daughter and her babies are dead!" she cried.
Paramedics and police found Riggs barely alive and took her to the Baptist Memorial Medical Center emergency room in North Little Rock.
Doctors stabilized Riggs, and later moved her to intensive care where police, who had found the syringes and the suicide notes, kept her under guard.
At her June 1998 trial, Riggs contended she was not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect, but the Pulaski County jury convicted her.
During the penalty phase, Riggs would not allow Hall to put on a defense, saying she wanted a death sentence. The jury obliged.
Prosecutor Jegley said he doesn't buy Riggs' prayer for death.
"One of the things that was clear to the jury was that she was extremely self-centered and manipulative. Saying she wanted to die may have been one of the manipulative machinations that she had grown comfortable with throughout her life," Jegley said.
Attorney John Wesley Hall said the Supreme Court will likely hear her appeal by the summer. He contends that Circuit Judge Marion Humphrey erred when he failed to throw out the statement Riggs made to police from her hospital bed after the failed suicide try.
Hall said Riggs was still "literally hallucinating" from the drug overdose at the time.
Hall also contends the court allowed prosecutors to prejudice the jury by showing them four photographs of the dead children. Riggs is still bitter about the photographs, but she seems to bear no malice for the legal system that sentenced her to death.
But if the death penalty was an expression of the jurors' revulsion, they weren't the only ones outraged.
Riggs said her early days in the county jail were the toughest. Some women inmates were incensed that Riggs killed her children while they endured a forced separation from their own.
"One woman spit at me and cussed me," she said.
Now, in the McPherson Unit, she is almost totally isolated from other inmates.
As the appeal of her death sentence slowly winds its way through the legal system, Riggs spends much of her time reading or watching television through the glass of her cell door.
"I didn't read a whole lot before I came to jail. I hated reading," Riggs said. "Now I read three or four novels a week. My mom sends them."
Riggs walks circles during exercise periods in the small outdoor courtyard adjoining her cell.
She corresponds with prisoners in other states who she said are giving her "an education" about how to be a Death Row inmate. Riggs also hears regularly from death penalty opponents from as far away as England and Austria.
But she doesn't have much in common with them.
"I still believe in the death penalty even though I'm sitting here on Death Row," Riggs said. "In my case, I'm glad I have the option."
She said lifelong incarceration is a "waste of tax dollars" and torture for the inmate who can only leave prison "feet first" anyway.
Thomas said she hopes her daughter will change her mind, but she supports her decision.
"She tells me she is adamant. she does not want to do life," Thomas said. "I want her to do whatever she needs for her. I know how hard it is for her to be in solitary up there by herself."
Riggs said she often wishes she was doing only a ten-year stretch and that her children were still alive.
"I'd give anything to have 10 years if I just knew my kids were on the other side of the fence waiting for me," she said.
Riggs says she doesn't know what she would do with a lifetime behind bars. If she could get therapy in prison, maybe she'd feel differently, she said.
"My kids were all I had."
Riggs says she believes her children are in heaven and that she will join them there when she dies.
"I know it sounds crazy," she said. "But the torture I have put myself through every day is worse than anything you can imagine."
Copyright ©1998 Arkansas Writers' Project, Inc.