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Public Notices

April 17, 2014

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Hearing For Jason Blake Bryant, Convicted Of Lillelid Murders, Set For Jan. 31 In Criminal Court

Originally published:
Last modified: 2009-04-01 12:10:13

A hearing on a petition seeking to set aside the murder convictions and life sentences of Jason Blake Bryant, the youngest of the six Kentuckians now serving prison terms for the 1997 Lillelid family murders, has been delayed until March.

A similar hearing for Crystal Sturgill, one of Bryant's codefendants, apparently will take place as scheduled on the last day of this month in Greene County Criminal Court.

Bryant, who was 14 in April 1997, when Vidar and Delfina Lillelid and their 6-year-old daughter, Tabitha, were fatally shot, and their 2-year-old son, Peter, was seriously wounded, had been scheduled for a post-conviction-relief hearing in Greene County Criminal Court on Wednesday, Jan. 30.

Court records indicate, however, that James E. Beckner, Criminal Court judge for the Third Judicial District, has granted a motion filed on Jan. 7 by Paul Whetsone, Bryant's court-appointed lawyer, asking for a delay to allow him more time to prepare for the case.

Bryant's hearing is now scheduled for March 18.

But Sturgill is scheduled to be in court here on Jan. 31.

In a post-conviction-relief petition, which was filed from prison last Sept. 28, using a "fill-in-the-blank" form, Sturgill alleged that her trial should have been severed from that of the five other defendants in the case.

Sturgill's petition also alleged that the state withheld evidence favorable to her and claims that her defense lawyers, Third Judicial District Public Defender Greg Eichelman and his assistant, Mike Walcher, should not have allowed her to plead guilty because they knew she "suffered from multiple psychological conditions" and was taking "psychotropic medications."

Sturgill did not testify during the March 1998 sentencing hearing for the six young Kentuckians in Criminal Court here, but three of her codefendants testified that she had taken no direct part in the shootings of the Lillelid family.

Testimony during the sentencing hearing indicated that Sturgill had been staying with codefendant Natasha Wallen Cornett when the six young people left Kentucky on a cross-country journey that led to the kidnapping of the Lillelid family from an Interstate 81 rest area near Baileyton and the subsequent shootings of the Lillelid family on isolated Payne Hollow Lane, north of Baileyton, in April 1997.

Had not rape allegations involving Sturgill been filed against a male relative, Sturgill would have been on her senior class trip when the Lillelid murders took place instead of being with the five other young Kentuckians.

Bryant's Petition

An amended petition filed by Bryant's lawyer in December asks Judge Beckner, who accepted Bryant's guilty plea on Feb. 20, 1998, and subsequently sentenced him and his five codefendants to three consecutive terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole, to "invalidate the guilty plea and vacate the convictions."

The amended petition also asks Beckner to return Bryant's case to Greene County Juvenile Court. Bryant was transferred from Juvenile Court to Criminal Court after a "transfer hearing" in the summer of 1998.

Bryant's amended petition alleges that his "mental age" was 10 when he allegedly was "coerced" by his court-appointed lawyer, Robert Jessee, into entering a guilty plea.

Codefendants Natasha Wallen Cornett, Karen Howell and Joseph Risner testified during a March 1998 sentencing hearing that Bryant had fired the shots that killed Vidar, Delfina and Tabitha Lillelid and wounded Peter.

However, Bryant testified during the same hearing that Risner and Edward Dean Mullins had done the shooting and later had shot him [Bryant] in the leg with a .25-caliber pistol while trying to force him to take the blame for the shootings.

Others Who Were Convicted

Similar post-conviction-relief hearings have been set for Risner, on Feb. 21, and Mullins, on Feb. 27. The hearings will be held in Rogersville before Judge Beckner, who will be holding court in Hawkins County in February.

A post-conviction-relief hearing for Howell is yet to be set.

Howell, who is represented by the University of Tennessee Legal Clinic, filed her petition last spring, but an appeal of Beckner's rulings on motions filed in the case remains to be heard by the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

A post-conviction-relief petition filed last fall by Cornett, the alleged leader of the group of young Kentuckians, was denied in December by Beckner after a pair of hearings in which Cornett and both of her former lawyers testified.
For more information and stories, see The Greeneville Sun.

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