GREENEVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – A Greeneville court struck down a petition by several of the convicted Lillelid murderers after they requested fingerprint analysis of the gun used to kill all but one member of a traveling family in 1997.
The petition was filed on Aug. 30 in Greene County Circuit Criminal Court, and requested tests based on the Post-Conviction Fingerprint Analysis Act of 2021. According to state code, fingerprint analysis can be ordered by a court when the convict believes the results may have changed the outcome of their case.
“The core of this argument boils down to the hope that the fingerprint analysis would demonstrate that one of the juveniles engaged in the actual shooting of the family,” Judge Alex Pearson wrote in his response to the petition by Karen Howell, Edward Mullins, Crystal Sturgill and Joseph Risner. “Thus possibly putting the other defendants in a better negotiating position to negotiate a more favorable sentence or go to trial if the current convictions were set aside or a new sentencing hearing ordered.”
Currently, all of the listed petitioners are serving multiple consecutive life sentences in Tennessee prisons after pleading guilty to first-degree murder charges. If their petition granted by Judge Pearson, the fingerprint evidence could have been used in other appeals.
Judge Pearson, however, wrote that the tests wouldn’t have been useful enough to justify the order.
“If the Court granted the petitioners’ request, the best case scenario for them would be that the fingerprint of a juvenile to the exclusion of any other defendants is all that could be located during testing,” Pearson wrote. “The Court notes for the sake of argument that even if this were true, it would not establish when the fingerprint was made on the firearm, before, during, or after the shooting, and it would not eliminate the possibility that other defendants handled or used the firearm during the commission of the murders.”
In Pearson’s ruling, the judge said the first-degree murder charge made the importance of the actual shooter’s identity less important.
“This is not a case in which the petitioners claim the fingerprint evidence will exonerate them or even establish a potential defense,” Pearson wrote. “The petitioners are simply grasping at any straw that they can because unless they are granted some type of sentence modification then they will all spend the rest of their lives in prison.”
Two of the convicted killers, Bryant and Howell, were minors at the time of the kidnapping. Pearson said fingerprint analysis could be importance in other cases, but believed that “other facts and evidence” kept it from being relevant.
“The Court finds the fingerprint analysis would be of no substantive benefit to any of the juvenile defendants because they were ineligible for the death penalty and a fingerprint on the gun or lack thereof would not take away from the horrific facts of the case that would have been presented to the jury,” Pearson wrote. “The extensive record of this case makes it abundantly clear that the State was not lacking in evidence to obtain a conviction for First Degree Felony Murder.”
Pearson then wrote about the conflict between public interest in the case and the court’s obligations.
“This conclusion might not satisfy individuals who have an inquisitive mind wanting to know every detail of how a crime was committed or for authors writing books wanting to satisfy the reader’s itch for suspense-filled detail,” Pearson wrote. “However, we are not dealing with a television show, movie, or novel. The state has the burden of proving the elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt and not every detail that an individual might want to know.
“It is human nature to be inquisitive and to try and find out as much detail about and event or situation if it piques the individual’s interest but that is simply not what the law requires.”
Pearson wrote that the group’s extensive sentencing hearing took differing levels of participation into account, and said Howell’s arguments of prior neglect and mental disability still resulted in her harsh sentencing. Since the sentencing court was already working with the assumption that Howell played a small part, Pearson said a lack of her fingerprints on the gun wouldn’t help her.