Kentucky attorney Steve Owens, who was hired by Mullins' family to represent the young Kentucky native on murder, kidnapping and theft convictions resulting from the April 6, 1997, Lillelid family murders, had been expected to take part in the Wednesday hearing to defend himself.
However, Third Judicial District Criminal Court Judge James E. Beckner, who presided during the Wednesday morning hearing at the Hawkins County Courthouse, announced at the beginning of the hearing that Owens could not be present due to the illness of his 2-year-old son.
In a petition filed last fall, Mullins alleged that Owens had provided "ineffective assistance of counsel" in the months leading up to his Feb. 20, 1998, guilty pleas and March 13, 1998, sentencing.
During a break in the hearing, Third Judicial District Assistant Attorney General Eric Christiansen said Owens told him on Tuesday evening that his son had been taken to a Kentucky hospital with a 104-degree fever and had been diagnosed as having pneumonia.
Judge Beckner said a second hearing, at which Owens will testify, will be scheduled in Morristown as soon as possible. The judge, who hears criminal cases in Greene, Hamblen, Hancock and Hawkins Counties, will be holding court in Morristown during March.
Mullins, who currently is serving three-consecutive sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole, plus 25 years, will remain in the Greene County Detention Center pending the completion of Owens' testimony, Judge Beckner said at the conclusion of the Wednesday hearing.
One Of Six Convicted
Mullins is the fourth of the six young Kentucky residents who pleaded guilty in Greeneville on Feb. 20, 1998, to be returned to Northeast Tennessee in recent months for hearings on "post-conviction relief" petitions filed last year.
All six pleaded guilty, on April 6, 1997, to murdering Vidar and Delfina Lillelid and the couple's 6-year-old daughter, Tabitha, as well as to attempting to murder the Lillelid's 2-year-old son Peter. They also pleaded guilty to especially aggravated kidnapping, aggravated kidnapping and theft charges.
Before Mullins took the witness stand on Wednesday morning, Douglas Payne, a Greeneville attorney appointed last year by Judge Beckner to represent Mullins in his "post-conviction relief" effort, listed the issues addressed in Mullins' petition.
Payne told the court that he had received the petition, which Mullins filed from prison last year "in fairly good form." A question Mullins raised, he said, had to do with "ineffective assistance of counsel."
A second question, he said, involved an agreement reached between Yvonne Ayers, an Arizona public defender, and the Third Judicial District Attorney General's office while Mullins and his codefendants were being held in Arizona following their arrest there in April 1997.
There were questions, Payne said, as to whether a notice to seek the death penalty against Mullins should have been filed in light of the Arizona agreement.
Judge Beckner said, in response, that the issue being raised seemed to be "that an agreement had been reached between the district attorney general and the petitioner (Mullins) in Arizona that should have constitutionally prevented the district attorney general from later seeking the death penalty against him (Mullins) in Greene County."
Payne also said the petition also dealt with whether Mullins' case should have been "severed" from those of his codefendants. In addition, Payne said, the petition also questioned whether Mullins' plea was "knowingly and voluntarily entered."
He had amended the original petition, Payne said, in light of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a New Jersey case that seemed to require that "enhancing factors" must be cited in indictments if they are to be placed in later notices of intent to seek the death penalty.
About 9:50 a.m. Wednesday, as five members of his family watched from the courtroom's spectator area, Mullins took the witness stand at the request of his attorney.
Dressed in a green, long-sleeved shirt and blue trousers on Wednesday, Mullins wore his brown hair short and had a thin beard and moustache. He appeared pale, but moved as steadily as his shackled feet would allow to and from the witness stand.
Speaking in a steady voice, Mullins answered both Payne's questions and those posed by Assistant District Attorney General Eric Christiansen during cross-examination.
Asked by Payne at the beginning of his testimony what he was seeking from the court, Mullins said:
"I believe that I was treated unfairly by my representation by Steve Owens. I was never told the fullness of what I would be pleading to and the issues that I would be waiving by signing the (guilty plea) agreement. And I'm asking the court to set aside my plea of guilty."
Arizona Agreement Recalled
Concerning the Arizona agreement negotiated for him by Arizona Public Defender Ayers, Mullins said he "happened to be there" when Greene County Sheriff's Detective John Huffine and TBI Agent Barry Brakebill were questioning him.
After leaving the room with the two officers for a time, Mullins testified, Ayers returned and told him the officers didn't believe he was "a shooter" and offered that if he would show the officers where the pistols used in the shootings of the Lillelids could be found they would not seek the death penalty against time.
Mullins said Ayers advised him to "take the agreement."
Asked what he understood the agreement to contain, Mullins said "if I told the truth, was proven not to be a shooter and showed them where the weapons were, they would not seek the death penalty."
As a result, Mullins said, he drew a diagram of the interior of the Lillelid family van, which he and his five codefendants had been aboard when arrested in Arizona, the diagram showing where the two handguns could be found.
The weapons were hidden inside the back on one of the van's seats according to testimony presented during the March 1998 sentencing hearing for the six Kentucky residents.
Mullins said he understood that Ayers negotiated the agreement with District Attorney General Berkeley Bell.
Mullins maintained during his testimony that he had believed he would be sentenced "according to his involvement" in the Lillelid case when he agreed to plead guilty.
He claimed on the witness stand that he signed the agreement during a visit with his family at the urging of Owens, his attorney at the time.
"He (Owens) had my mother, father and sister come in and talk to me about accepting the plea offer," he said. "I signed it while I was still in visitation with my family."
Mullins testified that in urging him to accept the guilty plea agreement, Owens told him "for the first time" that he should consider the welfare of his codefendants.
Mullins said he felt "somewhat responsible" for the welfare of codefendant Natasha Wallen Cornett, whom he said he believed likely would have received the death penalty had the case gone to trial.
"She received a lot of bad publicity because of her first attorney, Eric Conn," Mullins said. "And it kind of stuck the whole time. It really didn't look too good for her and she really didn't deserve the death penalty."
Also during his testimony, Mullins claimed Owens never reviewed evidence with him and met with him only "seven or eight" times before he entered the guilty plea.
Asked if Owens ever explained to him the maximum and minimum punishments he faced by pleading guilty, Mullins responded, "No, I was not" told.
Concerning the entering of his guilty plea in 1998, Mullins maintained that he followed Owens' instructions to "say yes" to all questions posed by Judge Beckner, even though he felt he should not have answered yes.
While cross-examining Mullins, Assistant District Attorney Christiansen asked Mullins to refer to transcripts of the 1998 guilty plea hearing to show that he had answered that he understood that his subsequent sentencing would be at the discretion of the court.
Christiansen also pointed out that, contrary to Mullins' earlier testimony, he had met with Owens more than 20 times in court during a series of motion hearings in the fall of 1997 and early 1998.
The assistant district attorney general also cited from the transcript of the 1998 sentencing hearing that Owens had called and elicited mitigating testimony from a number of witnesses that favored Mullins.
"As a result of the mitigation case presented on your behalf by Mr. Owens, the court found a lack of a criminal record," he said.
"The court also found that you were an accomplice and a minor participant in this horrific matter. And, likewise, the court found:
• "that you had cooperated with the state by presenting the diagram,
• "that you enjoyed a good reputation in your home community, and
• "that you had exhibited remorse."
Christiansen pointed out that in terms of mitigating factors considered favorably by the court for Mullins were greater than for any of the other defendants.
"So the court did consider your involvement in this tragic event, didn't it," Christiansen said.
"Yes sir, but not the way I was made to understand it," Mullins responded.
Christiansen said Mullins had wanted a better deal. "But the deal you got was the deal that you dictated for yourself in April of the prior year," Christiansen said in an apparent reference to the shootings of the Lillelid family.
Mullins responded "yes sir" to Christiansen's statement.
Judge Beckner has previously denied similar petitions filed by Mullins' codefendants Natasha Wallen Cornett and Crystal Sturgill.
A ruling on a petition by codefendant Joseph Lance Risner is pending, and a hearing on codefendant Jason Blake Bryant's petition is scheduled for March 18 in Morristown.
A hearing on a petition filed last year by codefendant Karen R. Howell is yet to be scheduled.