There’s been some discussion about this one on Facebook today. Here’s the story I wrote back then, after her execution. Scroll to the bottom for photos.
Special Report: ‘I’m sorry, Momma’
One week before her death by lethal injection, Christina Riggs sat for an interview. She said she wanted people to understand what she was thinking when she smothered her children.
CATHY FRYE ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE
Dear Mom, I’m sorry for the pain I have caused you throughout my life. … I hope that one day you will forgive me for taking my life and the life of my children. But I can’t live like this anymore and I couldn’t bare to leave my children behind to be a burden on you or to be separated and raised apart by their fathers and live knowing their mother killed herself. … I’m sorry Momma. Love your daughter, Chrissy
IT’S A SUNNY Tuesday afternoon, exactly one week before Christina Riggs’ execution, and she is matter-of-factly describing her funeral arrangements.
There will be a small, family service in a rural Oklahoma town. She’ll be buried next to her children.
Riggs says she is ready to die, that this is what she wanted 21/2 years ago when she killed her little boy and girl, swallowed 28 anti-depressants and injected herself with potassium chloride.
In seven days on May 2, at the Cummins Unit’s death house, potassium chloride will be one of three drugs pumped into Riggs’ veins.
This time, she says, it should do the job.
Some people wonder if the 28-year-old former nurse will change her mind. All she has to do to stop the execution is speak up. The machinery will shudder to a stop and all of the appeals she has thus far waived will go before various courts.
Won’t happen, Riggs says. It’s time.
That her first try at death didn’t work was a terrible blow, she says. But a second opportunity presented itself when she was convicted of capital murder for the deaths of her two children. That’s when she begged jurors to give her the death penalty.
She won’t appeal. Nor will she ask the governor for clemency as her execution date draws nearer.
Riggs has never spoken publicly about what she did in the late hours of Nov. 4, 1997, fearful that any coverage of her case might prompt people to intervene.
In a phone call from death row, just a week before this interview, she was reluctant to agree to a meeting. “An interview?” a husky voice inquired wryly. “When would it run?”
After a lengthy conversation, Riggs finally conceded. “I’ll talk to you. But only if this is running afterward. … I don’t want any publicity.”
Nor, she said, does she want sympathy.
But she will try to explain what thoughts were skittering through her mind on the night she killed Justin, 5, and Shelby, 2. She will talk about how her life slid out of control.
Maybe her story will help somebody else, she says.
“I’m at peace.” — Christina Riggs, one week before her execution .
Riggs cheerfully introduces herself through a small hole in the glass that separates her from visitors to the McPherson Unit in Newport.
She is swigging Coke and joking with her attorney, rolling her eyes at what she has deemed one of his not-so-clever puns.
Her dark hair, once long and wavy, has been bobbed well above her shoulders. Always prone to gaining weight, Riggs has put on 53 pounds since her incarceration began. She’s now past the 270 mark. About four weeks ago, prison officials put her on a six-month diet normally prescribed for diabetics.
Riggs was incredulous. “I’m about to die, and they’re worried about my weight?” she scoffs. And besides, she adds, 53 pounds isn’t that bad, especially given that smoking was recently banned, and she spends 22 hours each day in her cell.
Maybe they’re afraid she’ll be so fat that they won’t be able to find a vein, she jokes.
Everything about Riggs is big — from her low-alto voice to the wide smile she flashes the guard who is supervising today’s visit.
She’s 28, Riggs tells her guests. She’ll be 29 in September. Her attorney cocks an eyebrow and Riggs giggles.
“No — would have been 29,” she adds, cracking up again. “Ha-ha. Sorry, just a little gurney humor.”
Ever since her arrest 21/2 years ago, Riggs’ readiness to laugh has often prompted criticism. It shows a lack of remorse, people say.
This upsets Riggs. Anyone who knows her is well aware of just how sorry she is, she says. They know of the many hours she has spent weeping, of the hundreds of journal entries in which she wishes she could take it all back.
But what truly angers her is the criticism of her parenting skills.
She was a good mom, she says indignantly. The only thing she was bad at was planning an effective suicide, one in which the whole family was expected to die peacefully together.
“If they had said, ‘We know you loved your kids, but the fact is you did something wrong and you’re going to have to pay for it,’ I could accept that,” she says.
Looking back now, she was trying to say something and I just didn’t see it.” — Riggs’ mother, Carol Thomas, describing Riggs’ behavior in the days before Justin and Shelby’s deaths.
For the rest of her life, Thomas will relive the horror she felt as she stumbled through her daughter’s darkened Sherwood home to get help, frantic and sobbing, on the rainy evening of Nov. 5, 1997.
Unnerved by Riggs’ strange behavior over the past few days, Thomas had driven over to her daughter’s house to check on her.
She cut a zigzag path through the small home, flicking on lights as she went, until she reached Riggs’ wood-paneled bedroom.
In the large bed, with a comforter pulled about halfway over their small bodies, lay Justin and Shelby. The little girl’s head, covered with sleep-tousled curls, rested on her brother’s shoulder.
Riggs lay on the floor, just beyond the foot of the bed. She had urinated on herself.
All three appeared to be dead. “My God — carbon monoxide!” Thomas thought as she raced back through the house and to her car. She grabbed her phone off the seat and called 911.
The scene that greeted officers left them shaken. Two children, so very young, were dead. And at first glance, police would later testify, it looked as though the children’s mother also was deceased.
On a cluttered night stand, police found a spiral notebook with three suicide notes — two versions written to Thomas and a short letter intended for Riggs’ sister, Rosie. They would later learn that a fourth note had been mailed to Riggs’ ex-husband, Jon.
Also on the night stand were two syringes, an empty bottle of anti-depressants and vials of potassium chloride and morphine.
Dear Momma, I love you so much I’m sorry forgive me. I didn’t do this lightly, this is something that has been on my mind ever since Scott left me. I loved him so much and so do the kids and to be tossed away as if I meant nothing to him killed a part of me that I haven’t been able to get over …
Carol Thomas, 52, fidgets with the gold, heart-shaped locket around her neck.
How is this justice? she wants to know. She already lost her grandchildren. And now — after all the effort to save her daughter’s life — everything has come full circle. The state is going to finish what Riggs started, she says.
Prosecutors suggested at the trial’s end that Riggs was trying to con the jury when she begged for death. A little reverse psychology, so to speak.
Riggs says that wasn’t the case. She isn’t sure whether her execution could be considered a state-assisted suicide, as her attorney has claimed.
“I see it as man’s punishment, although I can go both ways in how I look at it,” Riggs says. “At my trial, they said I was a manipulative person, that I don’t really want to die and so on.
“But when I’m laying on that table, I’ll say, ‘Thank you for finishing what I started out 21/2 years ago.’ “
Her mother has promised that she won’t try to stop her.
“We have discussed this at great length,” Thomas says. “I think it would be selfish of me to want her to continue to live in the pain she’s in. I don’t think I could live with myself if I had done what she did, so I can understand.
“But if she came to me today and said, ‘I want to live, I don’t want to die,’ I would move this end of heaven and hell to help her.”
Thomas tugs again on her locket, which holds two pictures.
On one side, there is a photo of Justin and Shelby.
On the other, Christina.
Dear Jon, By the time you get this letter I will have taken my life and the kids. I know this may come as a shock but I’m not as strong as you thought. … You’re probably wondering why the kids too. It was because I didn’t want to leave them to be a burden on Mom or anyone else or to be separated …
The demons crawled out of the shadows at precisely the worst period in her life, Riggs says.
She was slipping into debt and still mourning a breakup that had happened nearly a year ago. These problems caused her to begin brooding over painful childhood memories and failed relationships.
Nothing, she concluded, had ever worked out for her. Things weren’t likely to change. She kept up a positive front not only for her family, but her co-workers at the Arkansas Heart Hospital.
Meanwhile, the utilities were being turned on and off, and a judge had threatened to send her to jail the next time she bounced a check, Riggs says.
But all these problems were only the catalyst for what happened at 8015 Bronco Lane, Riggs says. Depression is mostly to blame.
“I’d wait until the kids went to bed and I would just fall apart,” she says. “Or I would go in the bathroom and bawl at work. If people asked what was wrong, I told them I had a migraine, that I didn’t feel well.”
That’s what she told her mother on that last day.
Over the years, Riggs had flirted with thoughts of killing herself. Testimony during her trial revealed that she was once prescribed Prozac after telling a doctor about the depression she couldn’t seem to overcome.
But while Riggs often thought that suicide sounded tempting, she decided she couldn’t go through with it. There were her kids to consider. What would her death do to them? What would become of them?
Her oldest child, Justin, a lively towhead, was the result of a brief fling before Christina married Jon Riggs. But Justin always thought of Jon as his daddy.
Shelby, affectionately known as “Miss Priss” by her doting grandma and the owner of a irresistible grin, was conceived after Christina and Jon married.
Riggs believes her suicide would have split up the children if each father decided to pursue custody.
“Justin was only 5,” she continues. “And for the rest of his life, he would be thinking: ‘My mother killed herself. The man I believed to be my father isn’t. And now he’s taken my sister away and I have to go live with somebody else.’ “
But what if no one wanted them? Riggs fretted.
Both scenarios made her kids’ future look pretty dismal, she says.
Justin, who took medicine for attention-deficit disorder and extreme hyperactivity, was an unstoppable handful who often overtaxed his baby sitters. He wore out Riggs’ mother nearly every afternoon, after she picked him up at day care. Sometimes, people simply refused to look after the little boy, saying they just weren’t up to it.
Riggs remembers growing up with a father who wouldn’t claim her and a stepfather who lost interest in her. That’s not what she wanted for her own children.
So a day or two before her suicide attempt, she revised her plans.
She would take Justin and Shelby with her.
“That is the sad thing — it seemed rational at the time,” Riggs says. “I was going to protect them from the life I lived as a child.”
Dear Rosie, I’m sorry, I need you to take care of Momma. She’s gonna need you more than ever. Stay close to her. This is gonna be hard for her. And I’m truly sorry, I’m just so tired. You’ve been a great sister — I love you. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me. Love your lil sis Chrissy
Her plan, Riggs thought, was perfect.
She would give Justin and Shelby half a tablet each of Elavil, an anti-depressant that Riggs had been taking sporadically for back pain.
Once the children were dozing, she would inject each of them with potassium chloride. Then she would take the rest of the Elavil and inject herself.
But things went horribly wrong .
Along with being an executioner’s drug, potassium chloride also is used to help heart patients. But whether it is intended to kill or heal, the drug can be delivered only in a diluted form and only intravenously, which helps it enter the body slowly. If given as a shot, it immediately burns up both the skin and the veins, making it impossible for it to reach the heart.
Because it is so lethal, nurses have the option of refusing to administer potassium chloride. Riggs figured it would be the perfect way to kill herself. She says she got the idea one day when she and her fellow nurses were standing around talking about the easiest form of suicide.
“If you use a gun, you can end up a vegetable. Slit your wrists and there’s a bloody mess,” she says. “With this, it would be no pain, no mess, no nothing. I just thought, ‘Man, a sudden push and then …’ “
Riggs says she wasn’t aware that directly injecting potassium chloride would not only be futile, but painful. If anything, she says, she thought a shot would be quicker and more effective than using an IV and letting it trickle in.
She found out her mistake when she tried to inject Justin in the neck.
Even half-asleep, the little boy cried out in pain. “Mama! Mama! It hurts!”
“I panicked,” Riggs says, beginning to cry. She pauses for a moment, collects herself and continues. “It was such a shock. I didn’t know it was going to hurt him. I didn’t want him to hurt.”
She had some leftover morphine in one of her uniform pockets. So Riggs injected Justin with that, hoping to stop the pain.
Then she smothered him with a pillow.
Then she smothered Shelby.
According to doctors’ testimony, it takes three to six minutes to kill someone this way. Riggs won’t talk about those last long minutes of either child’s life.
She only cries.
“Everything else you’ve read is correct,” she finally mumbles, unwilling to further discuss Justin’s and Shelby’s deaths.
Riggs carried the tiny bodies to her room and tucked them into her bed. Then she wrote four suicide letters. The ones for her sister and mother were left in a spiral notebook on her night stand.
The one to Jon Riggs was put into an envelope.
“Then I took it out to the mailbox and left the deadbolt undone so that my mother would be able to get in. I’ve always wondered what the mailman thought once he heard about what happened.”
Riggs took the rest of the Elavil and then tried to inject her right arm with the remaining potassium chloride, a more-than-lethal dose.
But the drug ate a hole in her arm and collapsed the vein.
Riggs passed out.
Ladies and gentlemen, our civilization is based on the ability of women to bear children. And the very fabric that holds families together is that center person. And that’s always the mother. It’s the glue that makes everything stick. It’s always been that way. It always will be or it should be unless we allow this defendant to tear away the one thing we know to be true more than anything else in the world, unless we allow her to rip away at the very beliefs that we have grown up with and trusted all our lives — that a mother would never harm her children. — Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Melody Piazza, addressing the jury during closing arguments at Riggs’ trial.
In this case, she survived, so immediately, she’s demonized. — Defense attorney John Wesley Hall Jr.
“I was by no means Beaver Cleaver’s mother, but I was doing the best I knew how to do,” Riggs says, still angry about the jury’s conclusion that she was a single mom who simply wanted to get rid of two kids who kept her tied down.
“Never once, not once, did I see them as an inconvenience.”
Witnesses testified that Riggs had left her children locked in a bedroom on several occasions and lied to friends about a baby sitter coming over whenever she wanted to go out to karaoke bars.
Riggs’ mother was infuriated by these contentions.
“As a mom, I did not like to hear that she was not a good mother, that she was some party girl who didn’t want her kids anymore,”
Carol Thomas says heatedly. “That’s garbage.”
She knew better than anyone how Riggs’ children were being treated, Thomas says. After all, she picked them up from day care each afternoon and kept them until Riggs’ shift ended.
“Did she ever leave my grandchildren alone? No — and I know this because Justin would have told me if she locked him in his room and left him there. People don’t realize how much I was there, how involved I was in raising those kids.”
Riggs was the kind of mom who kept plenty of Kool-Aid stocked in a refrigerator covered with her children’s artwork, her family says.
Justin and Shelby shared a room. Each side was decorated to that child’s taste.
Thomas points to Justin’s fifth birthday, when Riggs hocked the VCR so she could afford the party at Chuck E. Cheese that she had promised him the year before.
Riggs says she spent three weeks planning her suicide, and at the same time, trying to figure out a way to leave Justin and Shelby behind with a few positive memories of their mother.
Two weeks before the children’s deaths, she took out a cash advance and used most of the money to take her children out for “the perfect day,” she says.
First they went to a birthday party at the local roller rink. Then they headed to a dollar movie, Hercules , and because the kids were so small, Riggs sat with her thighs draped over the edge of each of their seats to keep Justin and Shelby from bobbing up. They wrapped up the day with pizza.
“I wanted them to have some good memories of their mother,” she says. “I didn’t know I was going to be the one left behind.”
Love is not … incest, rape or violence. Love is not hate. Love is not … lying fighting Love is not … having to say you’re sorry — poem written by Riggs in one of her high school diaries
There are so many reasons Riggs was unhappy, her family says. But no one knew what those were until it was too late.
As a child, she was molested by a family member, according to trial testimony.
At 15, Riggs got pregnant, which horrified her mother. “I had a rough life, married young,” Thomas says. “I just didn’t want to see this happen [to her].”
Riggs decided to have the baby but gave it up for adoption. “I thought she got over it, but …” Thomas’ voice trails off.
In one of her suicide notes, Riggs talks about the baby she had given up, writing: “Do with my stuff as you see fit, but please keep something back that you think my 1st baby might like to have if he should ever find you and tell him how hard it was for me to let him go and how much I loved him.”
The next time Riggs got pregnant, it was by a young military man named Tim, who made it clear he wanted nothing to do with Riggs or the baby. Eventually, he agreed to pay child support and wanted to begin visiting his son. But for most of Justin’s short life, the little boy would know Jon Riggs as his father.
Jon and Christina met and dated in high school, just outside Oklahoma City. They married in 1993 and had Shelby shortly after. By 1996, the couple had moved from Oklahoma to Little Rock, where Christina’s mother was living.
The marriage, troubled from the beginning, fell apart in February 1996. According to court testimony, Riggs had trouble getting her ex-husband to pay child support for Shelby, which added to her financial problems. Nor did he seem interested in seeing the little girl once he moved back to Oklahoma, Riggs says.
Jon Riggs’ Oklahoma City number has been temporarily disconnected, so he couldn’t be reached for comment for this story.
During the punishment phase of Riggs’ trial, he was the sole witness for the prosecution.
“I miss her,” he said of Shelby’s death. “It’s been hard for me. I may never have a chance of having kids again. I know that’s nobody’s fault but my own. It just hurts because that was the only family that I had and it’s been ripped from me.”
Given that Jon Riggs never seemed interested in Shelby after the divorce, Christina says, she was infuriated to hear him testify about how he would never get to be a part of Shelby’s life.
“My question is, ‘How long was Shelby going to have to wait for that to happen?’ ” she says. After the children’s deaths, Christina’s older sister, Liz Nottingham, decided she had to see for herself what had been going on in her little sister’s life.
What had she and other family members missed?
She and Thomas scoured Riggs’ house, poring over bills, reading journals and examining letters. They were stunned by what they read.
It was only then that they began talking about the family’s history, which is cluttered with depression, mental illness and attempted suicides, Nottingham says.
One cousin had succeeded in killing himself, and Riggs’ grandmother was in and out of mental institutions, according to court testimony.
Thomas told jurors she had tried to kill herself when Riggs was still a baby.
And Nottingham attempted suicide as a teen-ager, but instead spent the night throwing up after her mother found her. She’s been on and off anti-depressants ever since.
While Nottingham thinks she truly understands her sister’s wish to die, it’s still difficult to sit back and watch Christina ignore each opportunity to appeal her case.
“It’s tough because it’s so wrong,” Nottingham says.
“On one hand, I think this was a terrible injustice — sentencing to death someone who could benefit from psychological treatment, someone who could have done OK one day in society. What she had — depression — can be turned around. So I wonder, ‘What if she got a new trial? What if they put her in a hospital?’
“But then another question hits us: ‘Can you ever get over killing your kids?’ “
There are people who are insane and yet there are people who just do insane things. — Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Melody Piazza
One truth in this case is that if Christina Riggs had died we wouldn’t be here. She would have been written off as a disturbed mother, and no one would have dug into it to find out why this happened. But she lived. — Defense attorney John Wesley Hall Jr.
Riggs has a theory about why she didn’t die when her children did.
She believes she was saved so she could seek forgiveness for killing Justin and Shelby. Also, she has realized that suicide is a sin, which means that even if she hadn’t committed murder beforehand, she still would have gone to hell.
Now she is ensured a spot in heaven.
Riggs didn’t want a prison term or even a stint at the State Hospital, she says. If she’d gotten help before killing her children, perhaps…
But there’s no way she can ever get over what she’s done. It’s too late, she says. She should have died when Justin and Shelby did. But since she didn’t, she will die now.
“If I had been convicted for, say, manslaughter, I would have left here the same way I came in here,” she says. “The same is true for the State Hospital.
“All along, I kept saying, this is what I wanted. If they convicted me of capital murder, I wanted the death penalty.”
Tonight, Riggs will get her wish.
Tuesday afternoon is rainy. The extra guards stationed at the prison’s roadblock seek shelter in a large tent. Television reporters fret about how they will “go live” outside with the weather as bad as it is.
Riggs spends most of the afternoon with her attorney and a couple of ministers. She eats about half of her last meal — a supreme pizza, salad, pickled okra, strawberry shortcake and a cherry limeade.
At 7:18 p.m., Riggs is curling her hair, according to the prison’s death-watch log. She meets with her ministers once more, and then sings a cappella an old country ballad by The Judds. At 8:16 p.m., she puts on her makeup and dons pressed inmate whites.
She says goodbye to her attorney.
“I love you. And thank you for all you’ve done,” she tells Hall. “I’ll see you later. This is what I want.”
“I know, Christina,” Hall replies. “I love you too.”
By 9 p.m., Riggs is in the execution chamber. Prison officials have trouble finding a vein, so she helps them. At 9:16 p.m., Riggs is asked if she has any last words. “Yes. There is no way — no words can express just how sorry I am for taking the lives of my babies. No way I can make up for or take away the pain I’ve caused everyone who knew and loved them. I hope someday maybe everyone can forgive me. I know God has and I believe he saved me 21/2 years ago, bringing me closer, to give me the chance to repent and accept him as my savior. I’ve done that. Now I can be with my babies as I always intended.”
The drugs begin flowing into Riggs’ body at 9:18. One minute later, she murmurs something, her voice so low that only a few of the witnesses can make out the words. “I love you, my babies.”
She is pronounced dead at 9:28 p.m.