Risner, now 24 and serving three consecutive sentences in state prison of life without the possibility of parole plus 25 years, had pleaded guilty, along with five codefendants, on Feb. 20, 1998, to the murders of Vidar and Delfina Lillelid, of Powell, and their daughter, Tabitha, 6.
He also pleaded guilty to the attempted murder of the Lillelids' son, Peter Lillelid, 2, and to related aggravated kidnapping, kidnapping and theft charges.
The Lillelids were kidnapped from an Interstate 81 rest area near Baileyton on April 6, 1997, and shot as they stood in a ditch beside isolated Payne Hollow Road, north of Baileyton. Only 2-year-old Peter, although disabled by his wounds, survived. He now lives with relatives in Sweden.
Risner and five codefendants were arrested several days later at a Mexican border-crossing point in Arizona while all of them were aboard the Lillelid family's van.
But during a Thursday hearing at the Hawkins County Courthouse before Criminal Court Judge James E. Beckner, Risner maintained that he had not wanted to enter the guilty pleas in 1998.
He only did so, he said in court Thursday, after giving in to pressure from his former lawyers, his family and his codefendants to accept a guilty plea agreement that allowed the adult defendants to escape the death penalty.
The hearing on Risner's petition to have his guilty pleas and sentences set aside was held in Hawkins County because that is where Beckner, Criminal Court judge for the Third Judicial District, is holding court this month.
Beckner, who accepted Risner's guilty pleas and sentenced him in 1998 in Greene County, hears criminal cases in Greene, Hamblen, Hancock and Hawkins Counties, which compose the Third Judicial District, on a rotating basis.
Risner Says He Was Pressured to Plead Guilty
The only witness called by his new court-appointed attorney, Richard L. Gaines, of Knoxville, during the Thursday hearing, Risner testified that one of his former attorneys, Mark Slagle, of Johnson City, had urged him to lie - while entering his guilty plea on Feb. 20, 1998 - when asked if he was guilty.
But both Slagle and Risner's other former court-appointed attorney, T. Wood "Woody" Smith, of Greeneville, later testified that Slagle had not told Risner to lie when asked by the judge if he was pleading guilty because he was guilty.
Slagle and Smith represented Risner from shortly after his return to Greene County in 1997 through his Feb. 20, 1998, guilty plea and March 1998 sentencing hearing.
In addition, Slagle subsequently represented Risner when his sentence was appealed to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.
On Thursday, it was Slagle and Smith who were essentially on trial and defending themselves against Risner's allegations that they had been "ineffective" in representing him and had helped pressure him into pleading guilty when he actually wanted a jury to decide his guilt or innocence.
At the outset of the 9 a.m. hearing on Thursday, Gaines, Risner's new court-appointed attorney, asked Judge Beckner to preclude Slagle and Wood from listening to Risner's testimony, as they were to be witnesses during the hearing as well.
Judge Beckner denied Gaines' motion and, after inquiring as to what exhibits were to be filed, asked Gaines to list the issues he wished the court to consider.
Gaines said the main issue involved whether Slagle and Wood had "rendered ineffective assistance of counsel" for allowing Risner to plead guilty under a plea agreement that required all six of the young Kentuckians charged with the Lillelid murders to plead guilty in order for the adults among them to avoid the death penalty.
Dressed in a rumpled white golf shirt and tan slacks without a belt, Risner looked tired and pale as he shuffled on shackled feet to the witness stand Thursday morning.
He testified that, during early discussions with his lawyers in 1997, he was told by Slagle that the defense was "basically up the creek without a paddle."
As the scheduled trial date of Feb. 20, 1998, neared, Risner said, his stress increased. "I was going on trial for my life, and all I had been hearing up to that point was that because of the media furor, there was nothing that could possibly happen except for us getting the death penalty."
Asked by his attorney to describe what happened about a week and a half before the trial was scheduled to begin, in February 1998, Risner said a nurse at the Greene County Detention Center told him a doctor was willing to prescribe a mood-relaxing drug for him.
Risner said the drug was Xanex.
"I was a drug user on the street," he said. "I know what Xanex looks like."
He testified that he took two tablets three times a day during the week leading up to the day he entered his guilty plea, but did not take the drug on the day he actually entered his guilty plea.
However, Risner claimed he was taking the mood-altering drug when he made the decision to plead guilty. He said he didn't recall if he told his attorneys about the medication.
Asked how he was affected by the medication, Risner said, "it lifted the burden a little bit. It kind of took the stress levels down a little. It muddied things up a little bit."
On Feb. 18, 1998, Risner testified, he saw for the first time the proposed plea agreement that had been unexpectedly offered by the Third Judicial District Attorney General's office.
He said attorney Slagle explained to him that the offer was "probably the best deal we were going to get and that it was quite likely that any jury I sat in front of was going to put me in the electric chair."
Slagle later testified that he had counseled Risner to accept the plea offer, which he said he had not expected to receive.
"We had reservations for the next three weeks at the Holiday Inn in Cleveland, Tennessee," Slagle said, noting that jury selection had been scheduled to begin there on Feb. 23, 1998.
(Plans for the trial of the six young Kentuckians had been for a jury to be selected in Cleveland, where little media coverage of the Lillelid murder case had been seen by potential jurors, and for the selected jurors to be brought to Greeneville to hear the trial.)
Earlier, Third Judicial District Attorney General Berkeley Bell had given little indication that prosecutors were willing to offer a plea bargain to the defendants in the case, Slagle said.
But Risner said he told Slagle after first seeing that guilty plea agreement that he didn't like it.
"I told him that I didn't like it," he said. "I didn't think it was right because I didn't kill anyone."
Later, Risner's former lawyers, Slagle and Smith, testified that Risner, although very intelligent, had difficulty understanding the concepts of felony murder and criminal responsibility for the conduct of others.
By taking part in the kidnappings and murders of the Lillelids - even if he had not personally fired any shots - he could have been found guilty by a jury and sentenced to death if the case were to go to trial, the two lawyers said they tried to explain to Risner.
Testimony by codefendant Natasha Cornett during the 1998 sentencing hearing in the case had indicated that Risner used a handgun to initiate the kidnapping of the Lillelid family from the southbound I-81 rest area near Baileyton on April 6, 1997.
Cornett, Risner and codefendant Karen Howell all testified during their 1998 sentencing hearing that all the shots fired at the Lillelid family were fired by then 14-year-old Jason Blake Bryant, the youngest of the six defendants.
Bryant, however, claimed Risner and codefendant Edward Dean Mullins had fired the shots.
On Thursday, Risner spent about an hour and 50 minutes on the witness stand answering questions posed by his attorney and by Assistant District Attorney General Eric Christiansen.
At one point, he testified that he had wanted to go on trial "to show that I wasn't the monster the media had made me out to be." He also told the court that he finally gave in to pressure to plead guilty, partially because he wanted to save the lives of other defendants who could have received the death penalty if he had not.
During his testimony, Risner said codefendant Karen Howell had been his girlfriend and that he had been friends with codefendant Natasha Cornett for five years. Risner also described codefendant Edward Dean Mullins as his "best friend."
Christiansen called attorney Slagle to the witness stand at about 11:10 a.m. After a one-hour break for lunch, the hearing resumed shortly after 1 p.m. It concluded at about 1:55 p.m. after attorney Smith testified and was cross-examined briefly.
At the conclusion of the hearing, Judge Beckner gave Risner's attorney Gaines two weeks in which to file a legal brief spelling out his position on the case. He also gave Assistant District Attorney General Christiansen two weeks after that to file a response to that brief, and indicated that the court would attempt to rule on the petition within two weeks of receiving the district attorney's response.
The judge already has denied similar petitions filed by codefendants Cornett and Crystal R. Sturgill.