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Public Notices

April 23, 2014

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Lillelid Murderer Natasha Cornett Asks To Have Conviction Set Aside

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

Natasha Wallen Cornett, the alleged leader of a group of six young Kentuckians who pleaded guilty in 1998 to the murders of three members of the Lillelid family and the attempted murder of a fourth, is seeking to have her convictions set aside.

A hearing is scheduled for Friday, Sept. 21, before Judge James E. Beckner in Greene County Criminal Court on a petition for post-conviction relief filed by Cornett.
Attorney Susanna Thomas has been appointed by the court to represent Cornett during the Sept. 21 hearing.

In an answer to Cornett's petition, which was filed on Aug. 28, Assistant District Attorney General Eric Christiansen asked that Cornett's petition be denied, noting that Cornett had "failed to show that she was prejudiced by any of the matters complained of by her."

Howell Also Files Petition

Cornett is the second of the six persons convicted of the Lillelid murders to file a petition for post-conviction relief. Earlier this year, co-defendant Karen R. Howell filed a similar petition, doing so with the assistance of the University of Tennessee Legal Clinic.

Howell's petition is scheduled to be heard on Sept. 26 in Greene County Criminal Court.

Because Howell, who was 17 in 1997, and co-defendant Jason Blake Bryant, who was 15, were juveniles when the murders took place, they were not eligible to receive the death penalty if convicted of first-degree murder under Tennessee law.

Cornett (then 19), Edward Dean Mullins (then 20), Joseph Lance Risner (then 21) and Crystal R. Sturgill (then 19) - could have received the death penalty, had they been tried and found guilty. All pleaded guilty as part of an "all or none" offer made to the defendants by District Attorney General Berkeley Bell.
Petition Filed By Mail

Cornett's petition, which she filed by mail from the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville on July 19, alleges that her convictions were "unconstitutionally obtained, and thus void, because her guilty pleas were entered unknowingly, unintelligently and involuntarily; were accepted despite her factual innocence; were entered without (her) understanding or awareness of the important constitutional rights she was waiving by pleading guilty; and were coerced by promises that have not been honored and threats that could not have been carried out by the state."

The petition also alleges that Cornett's "guilty plea convictions resulted from ineffective assistance of counsel."

Cornett was represented during the proceedings related to the Lillelid murder case by Johnson City attorney Robert E. Cupp, who has since been elected to a circuit judgeship in Washington County, and by Elizabethton lawyer Stacy L. Street.
Blames Her Attorneys

Specifically, Cornett claims in her petition that Cupp and Street "actively insisted that (Cornett) plead guilty."

She also alleges that, of the two court-appointed attorneys, only Street "communicated or discussed the case with her outside the court setting."

Cornett also claims in the petition that she suffered a "psychological breakdown," shortly before she pleaded guilty.

"In short, petitioner was emotionally and psychologically ill-equipped to assist in her legal defense or make informed decisions concerning her own welfare," the petition states. "Under such circumstances, petitioner's guilty pleas should not (have) been accepted."

In the petition, Cornett also maintains that her "only involvement in the tragic incident from which this case arose was her attempts to comfort and protect the victims."

During her March 1998 sentencing hearing, Cornett claimed that she took no part in the fatal shootings of Vidar, Delfina and Tabitha Lillelid nor the serious wounding of Peter Lillelid, then 2, on isolated Payne Hollow Lane in northern Greene County.

Parents Vidar and Delfina Lillelid were found dead at the scene on the night of April 6, 1997. Their daughter, Tabitha Lillelid, age 6, died the next day at a Knoxville hospital. Their son, Peter, although disabled by his wounds, recovered, despite having been shot in the head, and now lives with his paternal aunt's family in Sweden.

On Feb. 20, 1998, all six defendants pleaded guilty to three counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted first-degree murder, two counts of especially aggravated kidnapping, two counts of aggravated kidnapping, and one count of theft over $1,000.

On March 13, 1998, after a four-day sentencing hearing, all six were sentenced by Judge Beckner to three terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole, plus 25 years.
For more information and stories, see The Greeneville Sun.

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