Tennessee prisoner sentenced to life at 15 asks for freedom
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Tennessee prisoner says he shouldn’t have to serve a life sentence for a crime committed when he was 14 — a slaying that garnered international attention in 1997 because prosecutors said satanic rituals were involved.
In legal filings, Jason Bryant points to recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that juveniles should not be sentenced to life in prison except in the most extreme cases. Those involved in the slayings deny it was part of any sort of ritual.
At 15, Bryant and five other young people from Kentucky pleaded guilty to killing a couple and their 6-year-old daughter, and gravely injuring their 2-year-old son after kidnapping them at a rest area in east Tennessee. All six were sentenced to life without parole
Now, at the age 34, Bryant argues that two recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings should allow him a shot at freedom. He is asking for a either a parole hearing, a new sentence or a new sentencing hearing.
“The United States stands alone in sentencing children to life without parole,” said Riya Saha Shah, senior supervising attorney with the Juvenile Law Center, a national advocacy group based in Philadelphia.
But since 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that children are different from adults and less culpable for their crimes than older people. Neuroscience shows that a juvenile’s brain isn’t fully developed until later, Shah said, and research showing that they have poor decision-making skills is starting to catch up with the law.
In 2012, the U.S Supreme Court barred juveniles from mandatory life sentences, saying that judges had to “consider the characteristics of a defendant and the details of his offense before sentencing.” And last year the nation’s highest court said the decision barring juveniles from life without parole applies retroactively, meaning that with the exception of the most irredeemable offenders, all those sentenced before 2012 should have a shot at freedom.
The killings were sensational. Depending on which side you’re on, Bryant is either a victim who was blamed by older kids who perpetrated the crime but wanted him to take the rap because he was the youngest. Or, he’s a cold-blooded killer who was at least one of the shooters who executed members of a family while they begged for their lives.
The shootings happened as Vidar Lillelid and his wife, Delfina, were headed home from a Jehovah’s Witness retreat with their 6-year-old daughter, Tabitha, and 2-year-old son, Peter.
The family crossed paths with Bryant, Natasha Cornett, 18; Joseph Risner, 20; Joseph Mullins, 19; Crystal Sturgill, 18, and Karen Howell, 17, at the rest stop. Prosecutors believed they were on their way to New Orleans and wanted to take the Lillelid van to get there because their vehicle wouldn’t make it.
They also believe that Vidar Lillelid tried to engage the young people about his faith before the family was forced at gunpoint into the van and then driven to a remote area and shot in a ditch. The six were arrested two days later at a Mexican border crossing in Arizona.
It’s not clear who actually shot the family members.
Bryant’s attorney declined to comment on the case. However, he has issued a statement following the public release of letters by two others convicted in the slayings that has been publicized.
“First, Mr. Bryant never did shoot anyone and no jury has determined that he did,” attorney David Horwitz said in the statement. He said that one of the others told Bryant he would take the blame because he was the youngest in the group.
“That individual then pointed a gun at Mr. Bryant, shot him in the hand, and threatened to kill him if he did not,” the lawyer’s statement said.
All the others, however, pointed the finger at Bryant as the shooter.
A prosecutor says that Bryant should never be set free and points out that the U.S. Supreme Court has said life without parole is appropriate in some cases.
“We think if there’s any case in the world that meets that exception, it’s the Lillelid case,” Greene County District Attorney Dan Armstrong said. “That family was basically lined up in a ditch, begging for their lives and shot. And then that wasn’t enough, they ran the van over them as they left.”