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Public Notices

April 24, 2014

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Natasha Cornett Tells Why She Is Seeking A 'Fair Trial'

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

MORRISTOWN - In an interview with The Greeneville Sun and WCYB-TV (Channel 5) on Wednesday afternoon, convicted murderer Natasha Wallen Cornett, 22, maintained that she tried to prevent the April 1997 shootings of three members of the Lillelid family near Baileyton.

Cornett and her court-appointed attorney, Susanna Thomas - here for a hearing before Criminal Court Judge James E. Beckner on a petition to overturn her 1998 guilty pleas and resulting three consecutive life sentences - agreed to a brief post-hearing interview at the Hamblen County Justice Center.

Nearly four years after she entered guilty pleas, along with her five codefendants, on Feb. 20, 1998, to three counts of felony murder, one count of attempted murder, plus counts of aggravated kidnapping, especially aggravated kidnapping and theft, Cornett said she wants those guilty pleas overturned and wants a "fair trial."

Asked what she would like to see happen as a result of the petition currently before Judge Beckner, Cornett said, "Ideally, I would like to have a fair trial. Ideally, I would like to get out of prison before I'm too old to really care. To get out one day and have an opportunity to be a productive citizen."

Thomas, the Newport lawyer who currently represents Cornett, said Cornett hopes that, during a new trial, it can be shown "who was individually responsible for what happened (during the Lillelid murders)."

"I think what she (Cornett) is hoping to accomplish by getting a new trial would be to really clear up what actually happened and what the individual levels of responsibility were," Thomas said.

Cornett: 'I Didn't Know'

Asked what her involvement in the kidnapping and shootings of the Lillelid family had been, Cornett said, "I didn't know what was transpiring until it was too late. And when I did figure out what was happening, I tried my best to prevent it."

The first indication of trouble she received was a "gut feeling" that something was wrong at the Interstate 81 rest area near Baileyton, where the group of six young Kentuckians encountered the Lillelid family on a Sunday afternoon in April 1997, she said.

"It was when Joe (codefendant Joseph Lance Risner) said he wanted to converse with Vidar (Lillelid) about his religious beliefs," she said. "That just brought up red flags, because Joe was not a religious man. I tried to convince him (Risner) that we should just leave and get on our way. Every step that he took, I was there trying to prevent it."

Cornett claimed during the interview that Risner initiated the kidnapping of the Lillelid family from the I-81 rest area by pulling a gun on the family.

The Lillelid family was returning to their Knoxville-area home from a Jehovah's Witnesses convention in Johnson City when they encountered the six young Kentuckians who had left their home state earlier that day and had stolen two pistols along the way.

After Vidar and Delfina Lillelid and their children - Tabitha, 6, and Peter, 2 - were kidnapped from the rest area and driven in their own van to isolated Payne Hollow Lane off Van Hill Road north of Baileyton, Cornett said, she tried to intercede with Risner and Jason Blake Bryant, the then-14-year-old she accuses of firing the fatal shots.

"I got in between Jason (Bryant) and the family to where the gun was pointed at me and tried to convince him to not do that," she said. "I begged and I pleaded for what seemed like an eternity for him to stop. When I discovered that there was no stopping him, I begged for at least the children to be saved. He told me that if I didn't move, he would shoot me.

"I don't think I would have moved anyway until he promised and swore to me that he would not harm the children. That's when I moved. I didn't think that I could do anything to prevent it if I was dead.

"I thought I had more of an opportunity to convince him not to do anything if I got out of his way to where he could calm down."

Bryant Said To Have Fired

During the March 1998 sentencing hearing for all six of the young Kentuckians, Cornett and codefendants Risner and Karen R. Howell testified that Bryant fired the shots that killed Vidar, Delfina and Tabitha Lillelid and seriously wounded 2-year-old Peter Lillelid.

Bryant, however, testified that Risner and Edward Dean Mullins fired the shots and later tried to force him to take the blame as the six Kentuckians fled across the country in the Lillelid family's van.

A car registered to Risner's mother was found abandoned at the murder scene where the bullet-riddled bodies of the Lillelid family lay in a roadside ditch.

Asked what she would like to do if released from prison, Cornett said, "There are all kinds of things that I would do. Grow a garden. Visit forests. Live somewhere like out in the woods somewhere. But the first thing I would do would be to go visit my mom."

Cornett noted that her mother had come to visit her at the Greene County Detention Center last Friday after she was returned there to await Wednesday's hearing before Judge Beckner.

"I don't like her making the trip all the way that far," Cornett said of her mother. "It makes me worry about her."

During the interview, which her attorney requested not touch on the facts of the case, Cornet said life in prison had not been what she had expected.

"I expected big women with shanks (home-made knives) and stuff like that," she said. "You know, like the typical prison scene that you would see in a movie. But it's not like that."

Typical Day In Prison

However, Cornett noted that prison still isn't fun for her. "It's hard to have a good time when you're locked up," she noted.

Asked what a typical day is like for her, Cornett said, "you just get up, go to meals, have an hour out for recreational purposes and watch television and read." She said she spends more time reading than watching television.

Asked if she worked in prison, Cornett said, "Not for the time being, but I was a teacher's aide for about a year."

Cornett noted that she had been transferred from the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville to the Mark Luttrell Correctional Center near Memphis about two months ago. Codefendant Karen R. Howell, 21, also is being held at the Memphis prison, Cornett said, noting that she sees Howell "every once in a while."

Asked how Howell was faring in prison, Cornett said, "She seems to be doing okay."

In response to a reporter's question about how she faces the possibility that she might never be released from prison, Cornett said, "It's tough. Beyond tough; it's heart-breaking. There are a lot of people there who have to go through it on a daily basis."

Asked if she felt her situation is fair, Cornett said, "It's hard to put the word fair to anything that has to do with this whole situation. I don't think anything that has happened is fair to them (the victims), to us. I don't think the word (fair) can be put in context, or in the same paragraph, with this case."

Blames Her First Lawyer

In response to a reporter's question about why she had been "dubbed the ring-leader of this group (the convicted killers of the Lillelids)," Cornett said, "I'm assuming it has something to do with Eric Conn, the first lawyer that I had. Otherwise, I don't know why it was me that was picked out of everyone else. I know he did a lot to damage to me and my case."

At that point in the interview, Thomas, Cornett's current court-appointed attorney, interjected comments about Conn, the Kentucky lawyer who represented Cornett shortly after her arrest in Arizona in the wake of the Lillelid murders.

"He volunteered to represent her, then immediately began negotiating movie rights," Thomas said.

Stacy Street and Robert E. Cupp, the lawyers subsequently appointed to represent Cornett in Greene County, both claimed Conn caused harm to Cornett's defense by granting early media interviews and raising issues of alleged Satan worship by Cornett.

On Wednesday, Cornett claimed she was unaware of what Conn was saying about her early in the case. "I was unaware of anything that was transpiring until after he had been taken off my case," she said. "They would keep all the newspapers away from me, and I couldn't watch the news (while still being held in Arizona). To me, he was presenting himself as a good lawyer and to everybody else, he basically used me as a crutch for a movie deal."

Asked if she was concerned that she might be opening herself up for possibly receiving the death penalty if she wins a new trial, Cornett said, "It's a chance I'm willing to take. I'm aware that it could be reinstated, but that's something I'm willing to deal with."
For more information and stories, see The Greeneville Sun.

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