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Public Notices

April 16, 2014

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Attorney Defends His Role Representing Karen Howell

Sun Photos by Jody Snyder

Gary Anderson, shown in photo at left above, a University of Tennessee law professor, cross-examines Greeneville attorney David Leonard, shown in photo at right above, in Criminal Court on Monday morning. The cross-examination came during a hearing on Karen Howell's petition to set aside her 1998 guilty pleas in the Lillelid murder case. Howell and Anderson, her court-appointed attorney, allege that Leonard was "ineffective" in representing Howell, shown listening in photo at lower left.

Originally published:
Last modified: 2009-08-03 17:05:06

From mid-1997 through early 1998, Greeneville attorney David Leonard prepared to defend Karen R. Howell in an expected trial on three counts of first-degree murder and other charges that she faced in the Lillelid murder case.

But the trial never took place because Howell and five other young Kentuckians pleaded guilty on Feb. 20, 1998, only days before jury selection was to begin.

On Monday, Leonard was in Criminal Court, essentially defending himself against a
complaint from Howell and her new court-appointed lawyers that he had been "ineffective" in defending Howell, now 22.

Monday's hearing actually was being held on Howell's petition to have her 1998 guilty pleas and life-without-parole sentences in the Lillelid murder case set aside.
Monday's testimony brought the post-conviction hearing to a close. It had begun Tuesday, Jan. 21 and was originally scheduled to continue on Jan. 22.

The Jan. 22 session was postponed until Monday, however, because of last week's snow and ice.

During a tense and grueling cross-examination session on Monday morning,
Leonard and University of Tennessee law professor Gary Anderson, who now represents Howell, repeatedly traded barbed remarks.

As Anderson pointed out while cross-examining Leonard, Howell received the most severe sentence she could have received "even if she had represented herself."

Howell currently is serving three consecutive terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole, plus 25 years.

Leonard represented Howell in Juvenile Court and Criminal Court here in 1997 and 1998 in the aftermath of the April 1997 fatal shootings of Vidar and Delfina Lillelid and their 6-year-old daughter, Tabitha, and the wounding of Peter Lillelid, then 2.

No Immediate Ruling

At the conclusion of Monday's testimony, Judge James E. Beckner said it would be about eight weeks before he issues a ruling on Howell's petition to have her 1998 guilty pleas in the Lillelid murder case set aside.

Speaking from the bench at the close of a two-hour court session at the Greene County Courthouse, the judge, after conferring with his court reporter, said it would take about two weeks to complete a transcript of Howell's post-conviction relief hearing.

Once the transcript of the hearing is completed, Judge Beckner said Anderson would have two weeks to file a legal brief summarizing his position on behalf of Howell.

After Anderson's brief is filed, the judge said, Asst. District Attorney General Eric Christiansen would have two weeks to file a brief in response.

Once the two legal briefs have been filed, Judge Beckner will take two weeks to formulate and file his ruling on Howell's petition.

Leonard Called 'Ineffective'

In a petition filed in 2001 from prison, apparently with the help of a former prison guard, and in an amended petition filed later by Anderson and a team of UT law students, Howell called Leonard "ineffective" and asked, essentially, to take back the guilty pleas she entered in 1998.

During her testimony in the opening session of the two-day post-conviction-relief hearing that began on Tuesday, Jan. 21, and concluded at 11 a.m. Monday, Howell testified that Leonard had advised her to plead guilty.

In his testimony, Leonard claimed the decision had been Howell's and that he had not advised her to accept an "all or none" guilty plea offer made by 3rd Judicial District Attorney General Berkeley Bell to the six young Kentuckians charged with the Lillelid murders.

Leonard also said Howell had actually learned the details of the guilty plea offer from her codefendants before he had been made aware of the offer himself.
In addition, he maintained that Howell wanted to sign the plea agreement as soon as
it was offered to her.

Howell, who did not face the death penalty because she was a juvenile when the Lillelid murders took place, claimed that she felt "trapped" into pleading guilty. She maintained on the witness stand last week that she felt she had to plead guilty in order to help her four adult codefendants avoid receiving the death penalty - as they possibly could have if they had been found guilty by a jury.

But as a result of her guilty plea, Howell received the same sentence of three terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole, plus 25 years, as did her five codefendants.

Throughout the two-day hearing, Anderson, and a team of current and former UT law students, sought to show that Leonard, who was the youngest and least-experienced of the 10 attorneys who defended the six young Kentuckians charged in the Lillelid case, was "ineffective" in representing Howell in 1997 and 1998.

Because Howell and codefendant Jason Blake Bryant, who was 14 at the time of the murders, had been juveniles when the murders took place, those two defendants did not face the possibility of receiving the death penalty if convicted.

But their adult codefendants: Natasha Cornett, Edward Dean Mullins, Joseph Risner and Crystal Sturgill could have received the death penalty if found guilty by a jury.

All six defendants entered surprise guilty pleas on Feb. 20, 1998, and all received identical sentences of three consecutive terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole, plus 25 years, from Judge James E. Beckner on March 13, 1998.

Evaluation's Timing Questioned

During his Monday morning cross-examination of Leonard, Anderson hammered away at Leonard's handling of Howell's case.

One target of his questioning was Leonard's decision to delay having Howell undergo an independent psychological evaluation that originally had been proposed when Howell's case was still in Juvenile Court.

Anderson quoted from a June 1997 order written by then-General Sessions and Juvenile Judge James Carter that directed that Howell receive mental evaluations by both state and "independent" psychologists before her scheduled transfer hearing.
The law professor asked Leonard if the independent mental evaluation was performed before the transfer hearing. Leonard said he made a tactical decision not to have his client evaluated at that point.

Last week, Leonard testified that he had delayed having the psychological evaluation done by Knoxville psychologist Dr. Leonard Miller, Ph.D., until January 1998.

Anderson argued on Monday that if Miller had completed the psychological evaluation before Howell's case was transferred from Juvenile Court to Criminal Court in the summer of 1997, Leonard might have been able to prevent her transfer for trial as an adult.

Last week, Dr. Miller testified that his January 1998 evaluation of Howell indicated to him that she likely was "committable" to a mental hospital at the time of her Juvenile Court transfer hearing in the summer of 1997.

Leonard Defends Decision

Leonard pointed out that the state's own psychologist had held that Howell was not "committable" at the time of her transfer hearing.

Leonard maintained on Monday that, by the time of the transfer hearing in Juvenile Court, he realized that "there was no way" the case was going to remain in Juvenile Court.

"I realized the fight was going to be in Criminal Court," he said.

As a result, he said, he used the transfer hearing as an opportunity to learn as much as about the state's case against his client as possible.

Leonard also said, in response to a question from Anderson, that he did not believe having Howell's mental evaluation completed by Dr. Miller before her Juvenile Court transfer hearing would have resulted in her not being transferred to Criminal Court for trial as an adult.

"I don't think that would have helped one bit," Leonard said.

Anderson, Leonard Battle

Anderson also pointed out during cross-examination of Leonard that Leonard had chosen to waive the issue of Howell's alleged "committability" during the 1997
Juvenile Court transfer hearing.

During the Monday-morning cross-examination session, Anderson and Leonard battled over whether Leonard was prepared to go to trial as the Feb. 23 date for the beginning of jury selection approached in 1998.

Leonard maintained that he was as ready for trial as he could have been at that time.
But Anderson alleged that Leonard had not then interviewed a sufficient number of the possible witnesses in the case.

Leonard said he still had time to complete that task because he knew jury selection was expected to take at least two weeks and that there likely would have been a break in the case between the end of jury selection and the beginning of the trial proper.

Anderson also attacked Leonard's final argument to the judge during the March 1998 sentencing hearing in the case.

He pointed out that Leonard did not use the argument as an occasion to reiterate to the judge the mitigating factors that favored Howell.

Anderson played an audiotape of Leonard's final argument, which culminated with Leonard asking the court to give Howell "a chance" to someday get out of prison.

Anderson pointed out that, even if Howell had received a sentence of life, with the possibility of parole, she would have been at least 69 years of age before she could expect to be released.

He also noted that the average lifespan of prisoners serving life sentences in Tennessee prisons is only 60 years.

Also called to the witness stand on Monday by Anderson was Leonard's law partner, Edward Kershaw, who had assisted Leonard with Howell's case in Juvenile Court.

Kershaw said he recalled little about Howell's 1997 transfer hearing in Juvenile Court.

For more information and stories, see The Greeneville Sun.

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