Lawyers for three of the Lillelid murder case defendants Tuesday urged Circuit Court Judge Alex E. Pearson to allow fingerprint testing on the two guns used in the notorious 1997 murder case.
Pearson reserved judgment after hearing arguments from the lawyers and District Attorney General Dan E. Armstrong. Pearson will issue a written decision soon.
The post conviction relief hearing is for three of the Lillelid case defendants serving life without parole prison sentences for the killings of three Lillelid family members and severely wounding a fourth on April 6, 1997, on a remote road near Interstate 81 outside Baileyton.
Defendants represented Tuesday in court include Karen R. Howell, Edward Dean Mullins and Crystal R. Sturgill. All filed petitions for relief from sentence or conviction in July.
The filings are based on a fingerprint analysis law known as the Post Conviction Fingerprint Analysis Act that went into effect on July 1, 2021.
The state law allows that a petitioner may be granted the analysis provided that the evidence exists, was never tested or not subject to the analysis requested, or a new method or technology is requested, and the purpose of the request is to demonstrate innocence, according to innocenceproject.org.
The two guns used in the shootings of the Lillelid family were never tested for fingerprints.
Court filings for Howell, Mullins and Sturgill maintain that “fingerprint analysis will confirm that (each petitioner) was not the gunman and would have resulted in a different outcome.”
All maintain that another of the six defendants was the shooter.
“We ask the court to order a fingerprint analysis on the two murder weapons,” said James G. Thomas, one of the lawyers at the hearing representing Howell, who watched the hearing from the prison where she is held via Zoom connection.
Armstrong, representing the state, told Pearson that all six defendants are equally culpable for the murders and do not deserve consideration for early release.
The fingerprint law as written does not apply to the Lillelid defendants, Armstrong said.
“They’re inviting you to rewrite the statute, and I ask you not to take the bait,” Armstrong told Pearson.
The petitions for the three defendants ask the court to provide relief “in the form of an order for the laboratory used in the initial investigation to perform an analysis of all weapons involved in the original case in order to identify which of the defendants were responsible for the shooting.”
Petition filings maintain fingerprint tests were never done on the two handguns used in the Lillelid family shootings. Several lawyers said Tuesday that was a “strategic” move on the part of the state to induce all six defendants to accept a murder pleas and prison sentences of life without parole.
Each lawyer representing one of the Lillelid clients spoke briefly in turn.
“There are three attorneys arguing essentially the same motion,” Pearson said.
“The question for today is this. If the fingerprint analysis (proves) Howell was not the shooter, (would) Karen Howell have received the maximum sentence,” her lawyer William H. Milliken said.
Analysis will demonstrate a “reasonable probability” that the three defendants represented Tuesday were not the shooter, their lawyers told Pearson.
There was “considerable confusion” during the 1998 sentencing hearing “as to who actually pulled the trigger,” Milliken said.
Alex Chesnut, representing Sturgill, agreed that a “reasonable probability exists” that his client was not the shooter.
“There was a plea deal for all of the defendants,” Chesnut said.
Howell said in a 2017 interview that the minor defendants in the case were told the three adult-age defendants would be sentenced to death unless they all entered guilty murder pleas.
“Fingerprint analysis should have been done (at the time),” Chesnut said. “A crucial fact is missing.”
“The weapon(s) are available for testing,” said Randall Crossing, who represents Mullins.
Armstrong strongly disputed the arguments for the Lillelid defendants.
“it’s been 25 years,” he said, “and they keep coming back with the same facts over and over. Today they are limited,” he said.
Any fingerprint evidence is “immaterial,” Armstrong told Pearson.
The other Lillelid defendants are Jason Blake Bryant, Natasha Wallen Cornett and Joseph Risner.
The six East Kentucky natives are serving prison sentences of life without parole for the shooting deaths of Vidar Lillelid, his wife, Delfina, and their 6-year-old daughter, Tabitha.
The family members died after being kidnapped from a rest stop on southbound I-81 in Greene County. The victims were shot a short time later on remote Payne Hollow Lane near Baileyton. Son Peter Lillelid, 2 years old at the time of the crime, was also shot, suffering permanent disabilities, but survived.
On the afternoon of April 6, 1997, the Lillelid family was driving back to their Knoxville-area home from a Jehovah’s Witness gathering in Johnson City. Several of the defendants testified during 1998 sentencing hearings that they had left Kentucky on a trip to New Orleans and stopped at the southbound I-81 rest area in Greene County because of mechanical problems with the car they were driving.
“The group brought two guns with them and started the journey in a rickety car, prompting them to talk about upgrading their mode of transportation by stealing a better car,” an earlier U.S. Court of Appeals opinion states in a recitation of events leading up to the crime.
Vidar Lillelid, a 34-year-old immigrant from Norway, pulled the van into the same area where the six young people had parked. They were approached by Lillelid, who shared his religious beliefs. One of the defendants displayed a gun and, according to the Tennessee Supreme Court, “directed the Lillelid family to their van.” The family was kidnapped at gunpoint and then shot multiple times as they stood beside Payne Hollow Lane.
The six defendants were apprehended two days later in the Lillelid family van in Arizona as they tried to cross the border into Mexico.
A plea agreement was reached before trial. Each defendant entered guilty pleas in February 1998 to three counts of first-degree murder, aggravated kidnapping, and theft before then-Criminal Court Judge James E. Beckner.
The crime shocked Greene County residents and received worldwide coverage.
Howell, now 42, was then 17 years old. Sturgill, now 43, was 18; and Mullins, now 44, was 19. The other three defendants convicted of murder were Bryant, who was 14 at the time of the shootings; Cornett, who was 18; and Risner, then 20 years old.
Numerous appeals and petitions for post-conviction relief by defendants have been denied over the years. All six defendants remain in Tennessee prisons.
Prosecutors have not wavered in their stance. Armstrong said recently he supports the facts of the case as presented by the state in 1998.
“Every court that has looked at the Lillelid case has upheld those sentences. It would be an affront to the citizens of Greene County and the victims in this case to change or modify the defendants’ sentences after over 20 years,” Armstrong said.
One interested observer at Tuesday’s hearing was C. Berkeley Bell, former district attorney general and lead prosecutor in the Lillelid case.
“I thought the state did an outstanding job,” Bell said after the proceeding.
A fourth Lillelid defendant, Risner, also filed a post conviction relief petition in August. That case will be heard in the near future.
Greene County Criminal Court Judge John F. Dugger Jr. was an assistant district attorney general at the time the Lillelid case was heard in court, and was recused from the hearing.
FAMILY IN COURTROOM
Members of Mullins’ family traveled Tuesday from Kentucky and were in the courtroom for the post conviction relief hearing.
“I’d like to see him come home, and I think it’s going to happen and I think this is the first step,” Mullins’ father, Randy Mullins, said outside the courthouse.
The Mullins family is very mindful of the impact the Lillelid murders had, stepmother Teresa Mullins said.
“We would never take away from that family ever. Their loss is going to be their loss forever,” she said.
Edward Dean Mullins recently wrote a letter to The Greeneville Sun.
“I do not want to continue retelling this story perpetually. What needs to take priority now is how we move forward,” Mullins wrote.
Mullins posed several questions in the letter.
“Do we eternally linger in the dark and horrible past? Are these going to be the moments that define us? Or, can we embrace that experience as an inseparable part of our lives, and allow it to transform into something beautiful that will benefit our world and help others? That is what I want,” Mullins wrote.
“The Lillelids are inherently a part of my life, a part of who I am and who I am always becoming. I owe them. Every single one of us who went through this tragedy owe them — we cannot pay that debt by only remembering their most dreadful moments. We honor them by remembering who they were and what they stood for,” Mullins wrote.
“We honor them by continuing to do what they would have done. We make them a lighthouse, a beacon of love for this lost world to be guided by,” Mullins wrote.
“We celebrate the Lillelids’ lives by reaching out to help others who have suffered agonizing loss. We owe it to them to do all that we can to prevent such things from happening to others,” Mullins wrote.