Judge shoots down Lillelid appeals

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The Lillelid killers today: Karen Howell, 42; Natasha Cornett, 43; Crystal Sturgill, 43; Dean Mullins, 44; Jason Bryant, 40; and Joseph Risner, 45. (Source: Tennessee Department of Correction)

A Greene County judge has rejected an effort to appeal the sentences of three men and women convicted in the infamous 1997 Lillelid murders.

Circuit Court Judge Alex E. Pearson denied a request made by the defendants for fingerprint testing to be performed on the two handguns used in the crime, saying that any results obtained through such an analysis would be legally irrelevant.

“This is simply not a case in which it really matters who was the actual trigger person, or whether it was one or more of them,” Pearson opined in the ruling, which was filed last week. 

The unprovoked attack on the Lillelid family was one of the most sensationalized murder cases of the 1990s. It began on April 6, 1997, when a pair of police officers found a little girl dying, her younger brother crippled, and their parents dead in a ditch that ran alongside a rural road in Greene County.

All four had been shot: 2-year-old Peter Lillelid and his sister, 6-year-old Tabitha, were found with the corpses of their parents, Vidar, 34, and Delfina, 28. Tabitha would die a short time later in a hospital. Peter — who was shot in the right eye and torso — miraculously survived.  

It took only two days for authorities to find the six young people who had stolen the Lillelid family’s van. Natasha Wallen Cornett, 18; Edward Dean Mullins, 19; Joseph Lance Risner, 20; Crystal R. Sturgill, 18; Jason Blake Bryant, 14; and Karen R. Howell, 17, were arrested in Arizona after trying to cross the Mexican border in the stolen vehicle.

All six have spent the last 25 years behind bars in the Tennessee prison system, the result of an unusual “all-or-nothing” plea bargain that triggered life sentences for each of them. Their plea agreement has been questioned many times since, both in the media and in a series of courtrooms where their appeals have been summarily shot down. 

But a group of advocates recently decided to help three of the defendants — Howell, Sturgill and Mullins — try to convince Judge Pearson that their sentences were deeply unfair. They sought to use a new state law to force prosecutors to finally test key pieces of evidence — the two guns believed to be the murder weapons — to determine who actually pulled the trigger on the Lillelid family all those years ago. (For more information about the crime itself and the appeals, go to https://www.hardknoxwire.com/new-lillelid-killers-want-new-evidence-to-set-them-free/)

Judge Pearson listened to arguments made by attorneys representing Howell, Sturgill and Mullins during a hearing in late August. He issued his opinion in the case last week.

Pearson made it clear in his ruling that the defendants had failed to satisfy any of the legal criteria necessary to successful petition for post-conviction relief.

“This is not a case in which the petitioners claim the fingerprint evidence will exonerate them or even establish a potential defense,” Pearson wrote. “The petitioners are simply grasping at any straw that they can because unless they are granted some type of sentence modification then they will all spend the rest of their lives in prison.”

According to Pearson, fingerprint testing wouldn’t necessarily prove who actually fired the weapons.

“It would not establish when the fingerprint was made on the firearm, before, during, or after the shooting, and it would not eliminate the possibility that other defendants handled or used the firearm during the commission of the murders,” he stated.

Pearson also pointed out that prosecutors — who were originally led by longtime District Attorney General Berkeley Bell, who retired in 2014 — had more than enough proof to convict all six of the defendants under the state’s “felony murder” law.

In a normal first-degree murder case, prosecutors must prove premeditation in order to get a guilty verdict. In a felony murder case, however, all they need to prove for a conviction is that someone died while a defendant was committing a felony offense such as robbery or kidnapping.

“This conclusion might not satisfy individuals who have an inquisitive mind wanting to know every detail of how a crime was committed or for authors writing books wanting to satisfy the reader’s itch for suspense-filled detail; however, we are not dealing with a television show, movie, or novel,” the judge wrote. 

“The state has the burden of proving the elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt and not every detail that an individual might want to know,” he continued. “It is human nature to be inquisitive and to try and find out as much detail about an event or situation if it piques the individual’s interest but that is simply not what the law requires. We are in a Court of law and the law is what this Court will apply.”

In one section of the ruling, Pearson focused on Howell’s arguments and noted that then-Criminal Court Judge James E. Beckner had concluded when she was sentenced in 1998 that she’d played only a limited role in the killings.

“The sentencing court’s finding that Ms. Howell was a minor participant in the crimes eliminates any need for fingerprint testing because Ms. Howell was not sentenced with any belief that she was the shooter,” Pearson wrote. “This one detail in and of itself undermines the entire argument of Ms. Howell without taking into consideration other factors.”

District Attorney General Dan E. Armstrong, who argued against the defendants’ petition in August, couldn’t be reached for comment. 

After the decision was handed down, Howell issued a statement through Doug Cavanaugh (one of several private citizens who have advocated for the defendants to be released from prison) saying that she had anticipated Pearson’s ruling.  

“I spoke to Karen about the decision,” said Cavanaugh. “She expected this and is trying to not let it get her down. She isn’t surprised. She wants it to move on, to get the case out of Green County.”

Cavanaugh said that no jury from outside Greene County would have given Howell, Sturgill or Mullins a life sentence.

“The plan is to appeal this decision,” he said. “Karen’s lawyers will tear the good ol’ boys to shreds if we get it out of Green County.” 

Cavanaugh reiterated many of the arguments made by those who support giving some of the defendants another day in court, saying, “If they are not entitled to due process then who is? This could happen to anyone. The whole system is in disrepute.”

Cavanaugh described Howell as a “first-time offender with no history of violence, (a) 78 IQ, a history of trauma and mental health issues.”

“She went along because one of the group was threatening to kill dissenters,” he continued. “She signed a plea bargain because they threatened to kill her friends if she didn’t. I’ve told Karen and Crystal and Dean that I wouldn’t be their friend if I believed for a second that they actually did this. I’d want to see them hung, too. But obviously I believe that they do not deserve to be in prison for life.”

Sturgill and Mullins didn’t issue statements after the ruling was handed down.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on October 4, 2022.