Bill making killer kids eligible for parole brings prosecutor protests, recalling 1997 triple murder

A bill that would make juvenile murderers eligible for parole after 30 years even if sentenced to life in prison has won approval of a House committee while touching off outspoken opposition from those recalling a 1997 triple slaying in Greene County, reports the Greeneville Sun.

HB274, filed last year by Rep. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) and Sen. Becky Massey (R-Knoxville), cleared the House Criminal Justice Committee Feb. 28 after being amended to require 30 years in prison instead of 20, as proposed in the original version. It is on notice for a hearing this week in the House Finance Subcommittee. The bill’s fiscal note estimates that it could eventually save the state more than $4 million in incarceration expenses.

District Attorney General Dan Armstrong calls it “the Lillelid Injustice Bill” because it could apply to two juveniles convicted in the 1997 murders, though they received three consecutive life without parole sentences plus 25 years.

Armstrong is referring to Jason Blake Bryant and Karen Howell, who were 14 and 17 at the times of the Lillelid murders in April 1997.

…He spent several days in Nashville this week speaking with lawmakers in an attempt to keep the bill from progressing in the General Assembly.

…State Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville, said Friday he is also opposed to passage of the bill as written.

…“Think if you’re a mother or a father. Think if you’re a member of a victim’s family,” (Assistant DA Ritchie) Collins said Thursday. “Just look at the Lillelid situation. People in Greene County haven’t forgotten about that.”

Bryant, now 34; and Howell, now 38, along with four other East Kentucky natives, are serving prison sentences of life without parole for the April 6, 1997, shooting deaths of Vidar Lillelid, his wife, Delfina, and their 6-year-old daughter, Tabitha, who died of injuries after being kidnapped by the six young people from a rest stop on southbound Interstate 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, suffered permanent disabilities but survived. He now lives with relatives in Sweden.

The six defendants — Howell; Bryant; Natasha Wallen Cornett, who was 18; Crystal Sturgill, who was 18; Edward Dean Mullins, who was 19; and Joseph Risner, then 20 years old — were all returned to Greene County. In February 1998, each entered guilty pleas to three counts of first-degree murder, aggravated kidnapping and theft before now-retired Criminal Court Judge James E. Beckner.

…In the Lillelid case, Armstrong said, “We’re not talking about juveniles, we’re talking about evil”… (The bill) seems to be tailor-made for the Lillelid (defendants),” Armstrong said.

…“I’m going to work with District Attorney Armstrong to see if there’s any way to amend that to see if it would not affect any of those convicted in the Lillelid murders,” (Hawk) said. “I have concerns that we are retroactively trying to address the situation.”

Hawk said he would suggest to fellow lawmakers that the bill only apply to juveniles convicted of murder in crimes going forward.

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