2 charged in 1997 murder of Knox County family file petitions hoping for parole

Lillelid family (Photo: WJHL)

GREENE COUNTY, TN (WATE) –Two of the six teens charged in one of East Tennessee’s most brutal murders are hoping for the possibility of parole.

Karen Howell and Jason Bryant were convicted of murder for the killing of the Lillelid family in 2017. The family, who was from Powell, was carjacked at a Greene County rest stop and shot execution style. Only the young son survived.

“The little boy was gravely injured but obviously he survived. He’s been since placed in a good home. It’s my understanding he’s no longer in the country,” said Assistant District Attorney Ritchie Collins.

Howell and Bryant were juveniles when they were sentenced to life without parole. Collins said the defense is hoping to prove that the judge at the time didn’t have enough information to sentence them to life without parole.

In 2010, the United States Supreme Court held that mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders. In a 2015 case, the court said that states could undertake resentencing or offer parole to inmates sentenced to life as minors.

However, Collins says the courts decided a trial judge or sentencing judge has to have a complete background of the juvenile. He says the district attorney’s offices feels the information the judge had at the time was sufficient.

“Because there were so many defendants and all the defendants had witnesses, they were all cross-examined and Judge Beckner, our criminal court judge at the time, was able to complete a pretty clear and complete background on each individual and that’s really all the court is looking for.”

Collins added that according to Tennessee law a judge has to take certain factors into consideration before a juvenile can be sentenced to life without parole, it’s not automatic.

“They seem to be moving closer and closer to saying you just can’t sentence a juvenile to life without parole under any circumstance, they haven’t said that yet,” Collins said, referring to the Supreme Court.

Howell’s proceeding is April 21. Bryant’s hearing has not yet been scheduled.

A family friend of the Lillelids, Chuck Turner, hoped the two are not granted parole. Turner knew the family for a number of years. He met them at church in West Knoxville.

“Why should they be out and have a life? Vidar and his children don’t,” said Turner.

Natasha Cornett (Center) and Karen Howell (Right) walk back to their cells in 1997.

Douglas Cavanaugh, a friend and advocate of Howell for over ten years says he doesn’t’ think she should have spent a day in prison. Cavanaugh shared a letter that Howell wrote explaining her side of the story. In the letter, Howell writes that she doesn’t believe she deserves to die in prison for murder.

Read a copy of the letter

“I never thought or even wanted or intended that someone would die,” writes Howell. “that’s never been who I was, then or now.”

Howell claims Jason Bryant was the one who pulled the trigger and she was afraid to stop him for fear of her own life.

“This letter that she has released, I don’t think will have any bearing on her proceeding. She’s obviously looking for public sympathy,” said Collins. “Obviously they don’t want to look at spending the rest of their natural lives in jail so they’re looking to use any avenue, looking to use any way possible to get out of jail.”

20 years since murder of Lillelid family in Greene County

Next Thursday, April 6, marks 20 years since three members of the Lillelid family were murdered.

Police said all four family members were found shot execution style, robbed and left for dead in a ditch. Investigators said Vidar and Delfina Lillelid were found dead, each with one child in their arms. Their daughter, five-year-old Delfina was killed. Peter, their two-year-old son, was the only survivor.

Then began a massive manhunt for the suspects. Natasha Cornett, Crystall Sturgill, Dean Mullins, Joseph Risner, Howell and Bryant were found in the victims’ van trying to cross the Arizona border into Mexico.

 

Inside that van was a photo album filled with pictures of the Lillelid family. Their eyes were covered in black and for a while during the murder trial, witnesses, prosecutors and even family members of the accused said the six were involved in

Peter Lillielid

a cult and Cornett was the portrayed as the ringleader.

Cornett’s attorney said the group practiced ritualistic bloodletting while performing a dance. He said Cornett told him she served evil.

Five of the group pointed to their youngest member, Bryant, as the one who pulled the trigger.

“He don’t have a heart. No one can have a heart that walked up to some little girl and killed her,” said Natasha Cornett in court. Bryant denied the accusations.

Peter Lillelid, who now resides in Sweden is all grown up and doing well.

“Kind of in shock really. I think everybody was,” said Chuck Turner, a family friend.

Chuck knew the family for a number of years. He said he met them at church in West Knoxville. He remembered going to Smokies baseball games with Vidar. He described as a quiet man but a hard worker for his two children.

“He had a big smile. You couldn’t stop him from laughing,” he said.

He said it is still difficult for him to understand why this happened to the Lillelids. He said his faith brought him peace.

“As Jehovah’s Witnesses, we believe we will get to see Vidar and his family again,” Turner said.

 

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