Court rejects Lillelid killer’s appeal
Another legal door has slammed shut for Karen Howell, an Eastern Kentucky woman who was 17 in 1997 when she and her friends heinously murdered three members of the Vidar Lillelid family off Interstate 81 in Greene County.
Howell maintained her trial attorney blundered when he did not insist that she undergo a psychiatric evaluation.
If a mental-health professional concluded Howell was involuntarily committable to a psychiatric hospital, Tennessee law would have prevented her from being transferred to adult criminal court, at least at that point.
The U.S Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit rejected Howell’s ineffective-assistance arguments, which means barring the extremely unlikely intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court, Howell, who is now 33 years old, will die in prison.
Howell was present when Vidar and Delfina Lillelid, as well as their 6-year-old daughter, Tabitha, and 2-year-old son, Peter, were abducted from a rest area in the Baileyton community of Greene County so Howell and her five friends could trade their cramped Chevrolet Cavalier for the Lillelids’ van.
She was also present when Vidar, Delfina and Tabitha were shot to death on a nearby roadway in what law enforcement officials described ritualistic killings, which according to Tennessee law makes Howell guilty of first-degree felony murder. Peter was shot through an eye, but lived.
The bodies of the children were placed in inverted-cross fashion over their parents bodies, before the Lillelids were overrun with their own van.
The appellate court ruled there were reasonable grounds to believe Howell would not have been committable in 1997 even if she had undergone a psychiatric evaluation.
Criminal cases involving juveniles diagnosed with depression with psychotic features, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder have been transferred to adult court, and the transfers have been upheld, according to the decision.
“At best, she put forward two experts whose testimony was full of gaps, and in one instance was largely irrelevant,” the decision states. “Neither expert suggested Howell would have been committable for more than a few months.
“Neither expert relied on any history of medication or treatment for psychological issues before the murders … and neither expert indicated Howell is being medicated or treated for psychological issues in prison.”
Another hurdle Howell couldn’t clear was showing that, but for her attorney’s alleged ineffectiveness, she would have had a better outcome. At some point, even if she had been committed, she would have gone to trial, according to the decision.
Her theory is that if she had been evaluated by someone else, she would have been committed, and upon her release would not have pleaded guilty.
“Perhaps; perhaps not,” the decision states. “The problem is that she knowingly and voluntarily pled guilty to the murders, and even today she does not deny the truth of her role in the deaths of the three Lillelid family members.”
-By Robert Moore, Tribune Staff Writer