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KIDS WHO KILL – Interview with Dr. Helen Smith

It is almost impossible for us to look into a child’s eyes and see them committing the ultimate crime – cold-blooded murder. No parent wants to consider the possibility, no school wants to be responsible for preventing it, law enforcement typically doesn’t deal with it until it is too late, and the mental health community often doesn’t have the resources to treat it. But kids DO kill, and with alarming frequency.

Government and religious figures want to blame this violence on the media, television, Hollywood, video games, music. And certainly there is blame to be handed out: school officials are reluctant to get involved because of lack of training, risk of culpability, and they do not want to be accused of overreacting; mental health worker’s hands are tied by stingy HMO’s and the trend toward de-institutionalizing the mentally ill; law enforcement is the last resort and by the time they get involved, the violence has often already occurred. That leaves one responsible entity to which all the others must turn for help: parents.

Today’s parents are bombarded with wildly varied, and often conflicting, advice. What was accepted wisdom for our parents is not necessarily so today. I see part of the problem as “too much of a good thing” parenting. In an effort to express our love for our children we shower them with unwarranted praise, material goods, excessive protection from disappointment and are often blinded to their ill behavior.

Some of us have been brainwashed to believe it is wrong to expect our children to be responsible for their actions, their treatment of others, or even their treatment of us, their parents. I have seen it at the earliest ages: toddlers hurt others and aren’t disciplined by their parents, leaving it up to daycare providers. When the providers relay the behavior to the parent, the parent makes excuses: “Well, he never does that at home,” or “She is just acting her age.” This lack of accountability by the child and the parents may continue as the child passes through the school system, and if left unchallenged, may wind up in violence.

In his review, Eric Olsen describes the powerful documentary that addresses a worst-case outcome of these issues:

    SIX, a documentary written by Knoxville forensic psychologist Dr. Helen Smith, washes over the viewer with the power of shaped fiction as it traces, via interviews and court footage, the inexorable, “perfect storm” series of baby steps that led straight down a rural Tennessee road to the 1997 murder of a mother, father, young daughter, and the severe wounding of their baby boy, and the conviction of six Kentucky teens for the heinous crimes.

I interviewed Dr. Smith about the making of her film. When she was conducting interviews for Six, Dr. Smith encountered great resistance from the educational system, law enforcement, and the community that had responsibility for teaching and socializing these kids:

    “When you are dealing with unstable people, it is hard to get cooperation, no one cares much for time schedules etc. For example, at one point in Pikeville, we were trying to get interviews with the group’s friends and they could only meet late at night in a small smoke-filled trailer and some did not want to talk.

    “The prison also gave me a hard time. They had let me come four years ago and interview the girls with tape recorders etc. This time, they would not let me bring anything, no camera, etc., which made the job of making a documentary difficult as we had to be creative and piece together material from the courts and their diaries.

    “Many people were afraid to talk with us because they had been ostracized if they had known the six, and did not want to take chances. For example, Betsy Lane High School refused to talk on camera, but then we found teachers at Pikeville High who were very cooperative.”

All the kids involved in the Lillelid’s murder had troubled pasts. Dr. Smith gives a brief summary of their personalities and challenges:

    “Natasha – the supposed ringleader was bipolar, a cutter and suicidal. She had latent aggression, which she tried to inhibit but when one person after the next rejected her (probably with good reason) she felt hopeless. She was married on her 17th birthday and her marriage lasted less than one year. She feared abandonment and would not let her husband out of her sight. One day he came home, got his stuff and left for good without so much as a good bye. That probably set the stage for Natasha feeling utterly alone and desperate.”

About Dawn Olsen

  • Selena

    actually I check this site to read opinions of both Nero and Roman because they are just about the only people that make intelligent comments. And not only that they really try to figure out from non parcial opinions as to why this really happened. I’m not going to lower myself to your standards and cat call back and forth. For starters, I wouldn’t even know who I was arguing with, or care. Please do us all a favor Carl, post a comment that actually is worth typing or go back to your special place and stay there, please! Because the comment you made about the father, not only wasn’t puncuated, but it really didn’t make sense. That is almost like saying that if Jesus Christ would have kept his mouth shut he wouldn’t have been hung on a cross. With their religious beliefs, I’m pretty sure that spreading their religion by word of mouth is something they believe in. I don’t claim to know anything about thier religion, but they way you make it sound is they were shot for it. I don’t like unsolicited religion either, but I’m not gonna shoot someone or their family for it. See know you got me on a whole other circumstance. Do yourself and everyone else a favor and the next time you get a idea to type something that ridiculous again, just let it go please.

  • Nero

    CARL- sounds like you’ve got a bone to pick. What’s eatin’ ya?

  • Tonya

    I’ve only recently started thinking about this crime again, and it troubles me greatly. I went to Prestonsburg High School with Joe for awhile, and remember him as being one of the sweetest, goofiest kids I had ever met. To this day, it is still difficult for me to imagine what happened to that blue eyed boy that seemed so full of life. A few weeks prior to the event, the group of them were in the community college library where I worked. A friend and I both noticed a marked difference in Joe, and that as a group, they seemed very foreboding. We had no idea what would transpire a few weeks later…

    My heart goes out to the families of those left behind…yet, though angry at first, my heart goes out to each of the six as well. It is difficult for those that have never lived in this region to understand what it’s like to be different in one of the most close-minded parts of the world. Growing up, I loosely flowed with the cultural norms, but I was friends with all groups of people. I watched countless kids be verbally abused and threatened daily, sometimes enduring much worse. There really is such a feel of “suffocation” that overtakes you at times, feeling completely taken over by the culture of this area.

    While I’m not dismissing any blame from the six for what occurred, I know quite well the cruelty and abuse that they endured before making the choices that they did. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if someone had stepped in with love instead of judgement.

    Another documentary from this region, “Country Boys” featured a young boy that looked much like the six. His name was Cody. He also came from a backgrond of abuse and violence. He chose to express himself in a way that wasn’t “norm” acceptable. However, at some point, during his anger and difficulties, he discovered someone that sincerely loved him and taught of God without judgement. Cody transformed what could have been a very dark path to one of much more promise. He and his wife are some of my best friends, and after thinking back to the tragedy of the Lillelids, I am so thankful that someone reached out to Cody in a way that he was able to respond.

    Mostly, this just all makes me look at my life, my past and present, and question how I treat those around me. Do I truly embrace those that are different than me? Do I pay attention to the pain that someone else feels? Just one act of love and sincere kindness could help end this violent cycle….

  • Nero

    Tonya- Thanks for that input. Let me ask you this: do you think they are all “murderers”? Or that the punishment of life without parole for all 6 was out of proportion for those who didn’t kill nor advocate it? When you last saw Joe he obviously seemed a bit darker to you. But did he seem like someone who would kill?

  • Durkl

    Has anyone actually read the book “The Scarred Heart”?

    I have not but was tihnking about looking for it on amazon.

    How about the movie “Six”, has anyone watched it?

    I have not but want to order it.

  • Nero

    DURKL- SIX is an excellent documentary. It gives a well-balanced point of view from several sides of the issue. It’s what got me thinking that maybe not all of the six defendants are murderers or even had murderous intent.

  • Durkl

    NERO- Do you have a email you can share so that we can discuss this in private a little more?

  • fuck u all and no one

    uhh..

  • STM

    Guns, guys, and the ready access to them is the real reason behind the tendency of angry young Americans (who are no different to angry young people anywhere) to pick up a firearm and go on a shooting spree.

    Too easy when Dad’s rifle or handgun is stored on the top shelf of the closet with a box of bullets.

    Check out the figures and see for yourself. Most of these killings by young people are done with firearms.

    In places where there is no ready access to a weapon, the usual response from a young angry person might at best be a punch in the mouth.

    Think, guys. And instead of engaging in continuous bouts of handwringing, do something about it. You don’t need the second amendment.

    It was designed to keep an armed militia 200 years ago.

    Here endeth the tirade.

  • Selena

    You know some time has gone by since I felt a lot of hate for these people. Of course I just wanted to blame them for everything and be completely closed minded. Now that I have been studying some criminal psychology, I don’t to blame then. My weird interest in criminal psychology has really opened my mind about only this situation , I have a strange interest in criminal psychology. I read nothing but true crime books Some were vvery emotional. I won’t be so black and white about this anymore MY passion is to do, basically what Helen Smith does. I”m bipolar, there for I have emotional problems. So what I”m tryin to say is that if anyone could help me out on learning more about basic psycholog. Let me me know if some has some insite on the whole subject.

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Dawn, this is directed to you. I have no idea of what happened with the Six who were involved with a murder, I cannot comment on it at all – and I won’t.

    But, this article and the comments it brought out are an example of the success of the magazine that your husband started three years ago.

    Check out the comments here. A lot of the folks commenting knew the convicts and one knew the victims personally. The article has not died, even though it is from the beginning of the magazine, over three years ago, and would be regarded as old news anywhere else.

    Whatever you all do here, do not change the essential format. This article is proof of its success. Kol hakavód – all honor to the both of you.

    A comment for the rest of you who have come to comment on this terrible event.

    Speaking as a parent with two teenaged boys, one of whom is being contacted by the army here to be drafted, it has been my view that the mother and the father are the primary ones responsible for the up-bringing of their children. Period. Society has its role to play, but we parents have been given an opportunity by the Almighty to help mold a soul to do good or to do evil, to choose life, or to choose death.

    Children are not all born perfect. They have defects, and our job as parents is to help them cope with the defects in a way that they will be able to be as whole as possible when we ourselves die, and can no longer try to guide them away from unwise decisions.

    This is all preventive work, so that groups of children do not forgather to murder other families in cold blood, and events like the one commented on so extensively here do not scar other lives.

  • NERO

    SELENA- I’ve worked in psych for many years. Especially with bipolars. Be happy to help you any way I can.

  • NERO

    and I think it’s impressive that you’ve allowed yourself to change your point of view, too. Sometimes it’s hard to see through our own prejudices and indignation, especially when on top of it you’re dealing with the near-unmanageable emotional swings that bipolars suffer through. You’re a tough, brave chica.*s*

  • harley

    I live in the town where these murders occurred, Greeneville,TN. These events have forever changed our small quiet little town.I remember when this happened the whole town was in disbelief that this could happen in our area.Because of the type of people that live in our area (open and friendly) I’m sure Mr. Lilliled had no fear at all when he attempted to reach out to what he thought to be some troubled youth in need of love.I guess he was too late.During the trial all that was talked about was the fact that the leader (cornett) was a witch ,devil worshiper,etc.So automatically everyone assumes that that was the reason for the violence of the crime.I’m not so sure it wasn’t .Even taking into consideration the background of each person involved here ,I believe you can open yourself up to evil to enter into your being and it can take control of your life just as the young lady said that Joe seemed darker.The district attorney in our county had I’m sure never dealt with any crime this violent and bizzare and he did what he felt he needed to do to put them all behind bars and by getting them all to plead guilty to save each other from the death penalty was a major coup. He also saved the taxpayers lots of money while making sure these monsters were off the streets.Shooter or not I feel they all were equally responsible and had they not all been sent to prison I think they were capable of much more mayhem.Thanks for allowing me to offer my comments.In closing; Our town after that fateful night lost its innocence forever.

  • Nero

    HARLEY- Jason Bryant was the only “monster” out of the group. The others weren’t “monsters” and nothing in their past would justify such a label(except unreasoning religious hysteria and slavish acceptance of the media’s gross misinterpretation of the events). They were deeply troubled teens with poor coping skills who froze up during the most horrifying event of their lives, thus showing consistency in their well-documented inabilty to cope and process. They had no previous history of violence and there’s no reason to think that they would be a danger to society if they were released. They should be released, with the exception of Jason Bryant and Joe Risner.

    Before you judge, separate yourself from the lies you have been sold and look into the history of each individual involved. And before I myself am accused of being an apologist for them or a “monster” too, rest assured that I’m not jumping up in the air, clicking my heels together in joy that an innocent family is dead. I just think that much blame has been misplaced based on ignorance and hysteria.

  • Nero

    I take that back, I don’t think the blame has been misplaced based on media hysteria and ignorance…I KNOW it has. Because I have done a lot of research and homework on this case. I challenge everyone reading this to do the same.

    Because if anyone comes on here repeating the discredited “facts” of the case(and many have been proven inaccurate and discredited), the lies and the exaggerations, I WILL call you on it. I will be happy to listen to anybody who does their research.

  • Nero

    BTW Harley….none of those last posts were meant to be an attack upon you. So please don’t take them that way*s*

  • Steele66

    Selena: What can you tell me about Karen Howell? She was kinda hot. Were her and Natasha kinda slutty chicks too, or not really?

    What kind of girl was Karen? Was she smart, or sort of brain dead? Did she have a good sense of humour?

    Anyone that knew Karen Howell, please post info about her and what she was like.

  • Roman

    Check out this great website. http://www.pikeville4.com It gives a whole new(and complete) version on what REALLY happened on that day in April, 1997.

  • Truth

    This is from a person who knew Karen Howell before these crimes. Her intelligence is low. Her efforts at education/learning were nonexistant. She was a very beautiful young girl. Observing her at a young age, the word I used to describe her was “follower”. She would follow whomever she was attracted to at the moment, and would behave like those she followed. She was a failure at being an individual.
    All that being said, she is where she needs to be. If she didnt follow in this circumstance, she would have followed in another and been a burden to free society. Many people suffer from various problems in their lives, but dont murder innocent people. She was a train wreck waiting to happen, and met another train wreck, Cornett. The punishment for accessory to murder is the same as those who pull the trigger. You are (she was) part of these murders. They chose to follow Satanic influences, now they reap the benefits from a cell. Face the truth and serve your time.

  • chip navarro

    sara….. sean hits it right on the head and it’s ‘dullards’(look it up)like you who perpetuate the horrors we now see in america.. and the republicans??? you dare tout a president(read:republican party) that is given a 3trillion dollar surplus,, runs thru it and puts us trillions more in debt?… you must be f*&%$# rich…..

  • Mikey B

    Karen Howell was hot. She should have just left Pikeville and let her looks give her a shot at a better life somewhere.

  • ANGEL

    HI I JUST READ YOUR STORY ABOUT NATASHA CORNETT AND CRYSTAL STURGILL. I WAS IN PRISON WITH THEM I WAS THERE WHEN THEY FIRST CAME IN. IN FACT I WAS HANGING AROUND THEM WHILE I WAS THERE . I JUST WANT TO SAY THAT I FEEL SORRY FOR KAREN AND CRYSTAL NATASHA WAS THE RING LEADER SHE WAS VERY BOSSY AND TRIED TO MAKE PEOPLE DO THINGS THEY DIDNT WANT TO DO. THEY DO CUT THERE SELVES AND SUCK EACH OTHERS BLOOD EVEN STILL IN PRISON. I HAVE NOT HEARD FROM THEM IN A LONG TIME MY CONTACT WITH TASHA STOPPED BEFORE I EVEN LEFT. ME AND HER JUST STOPPED TALKING I CONTINUED TO WRITE KAREN AND CRYSTAL WHEN I FIRST LEFT BUT QUIT BECAUSE HERE I AM FREE AND THEY ARE LOCKED UP FOREVER WHAT I COULD I SAY TO THEM

  • shannon

    I HAVE TO SAY I WAS RECENTLY IN PRISON AND MY CELLMATE WHOM I DIDNT KNOW NOTHING ABOUT WAS THE MOST PRECIOUS PERSON IN THE WORLD TO ME KAREN HOWELL VERY SWEET NOT IN A MILLION DO I BELIVE KAREN KNEW ANYTHING ABOUT WHAT TOOK PLACE THAT NIGHT. WHEN THE CASE WAS TALKED ABOUT SHE CRIED DEEP BECAUSE OF THE THINGS THAT WHERE DONE TO THOSE PEOPLE. I BELIVE SMALL COMMUNITIES NEED MORE YOUTH PROGRAMS TO KEEP KIDS OCCUPIED.

  • Mike

    Karen, Crystal and Dean will be free soon enough. As they should be. They had nothing to do with the murders. In fact Jason Bryant was threatening to kill both Crystal and Dean, so can you really fault them for going along? What would you have done?

  • jinia

    this is all brilliant stuff, just brilliant. you should all listen to that green day song, american idiot. one nation controlled by the media…

  • Roman

    Hmmm….quiet around here…

  • Rhys

    Hi, I only found out about this murder case a while back. Being from England you rarely hear about things like this, but as I recall it did make the news.

    Obviously not knowing the persons involved and not having seen SIX I can’t really comment.

    I’m twenty two years and I saw alot of myself in Natasha and Karen ie, alternative dress sense, musical tastes etc. Tbh it’s just a harmless form of expression that most can’t handle because they’re not dressed in clothes like Fubu or Nike.

  • http://turningwinds.blogspot.com/ Hansel @ Turning Winds

    I mostly agree with this article. It’s really the parent’s responsibility to see to it that their children are taught about values at home. It is not wrong to love your child in ways you know how, but always think that giving them everything they need and want does not mean they’ll grow up to be good people. It’s important to set limits in the house where your child would learn about responsibility and respect. It’s not an easy task, but “tough love” might be the only way these kids won’t become troubled teens later on in life.

  • FredinMD

    I’m sorry, but all six of these defendants deserve to be in a cell. I can’t believe that they had no idea about what was going to happen. Seriously, they stole two handguns. Problem is with society is that people want to pity those who choose the dark side. They have a weird almost perverse obsession, trying to justify and make sense of something that you can’t make any sense out of. Teenagers at that age feed off of eachother; I doubt 14 yr old Jason Bryant acted all on his own without encouragement from the others.

  • Roman

    Fredin- Why can’t you believe it? Yes, they took two handguns. Do you know why? And why do you feel that Jason Bryant needed encouragement to do what he did? Do you know his social history? Are you aware that he was on probation and was the only one of them who had a history of violence? How much research have you truly done where you can come up with this conclusion you’ve come up with?

    I’m not trying to ridicule you here. Just want you to try and consider a few things before you draw the conclusion that you have. This is a complex case, one that requires more than just a quick wikipedia perusal (or perusal of the “Six” website). There’s an important backstory to be considered. Read their appeals and their individual accounts of what happened that day. Some truths become very clear when one does their homework on this case.

    Remember that the West Memphis 3 case seemed like a slam dunk guilty verdict too. Until other truths began to leak out :-)