Jason Corbett’s family ‘shocked’ at murder retrial ruling
Thomas and Molly Martens to remain in jail pending further court proceedings
The family of Limerick father-of-two Jason Corbett have reacted with shock at a US appeals court’s decision to order a retrial of father and daughter Thomas and Molly Martens for his murder in August 2015.
Tracey Corbett Lynch, Mr Corbett’s sister who is raising his children at her home in Limerick, said: “We were just going about our day - this decision has come as a shock.”
She told The Irish Times the family were aware of the court’s decision on the retrial.
“We will not be comment at this time on the decision and we would ask that our family’s privacy would be respected,” said Ms Corbett Lynch.
Mr Martens, a retired FBI agent, and his daughter Molly Martens, Mr Corbett’s second wife, were convicted of second-degree murder of the 39-year-old after a trial in the summer of 2017.
Mr Corbett died from head injuries after a sustained assault with a brick and a baseball bat at his family home in the town of Wallburg in North Carolina.
The father and daughter won their appeal seeking a new retrial in a lengthy ruling from the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
Mr Martens (69) claimed that he acted in self-defence, testifying that Mr Corbett was choking his daughter and that he was responding to what he believed was some sort of disturbance.
He argued that it was “unfair” to block him entering specific statements in support of his claim that he had acted in self-defence. This was contested by North Carolina prosecutors.
The case now returns to Davidson County Superior Court, where the original murder trial was heard, on February 24th.
Prosecutors have 15 days from that date to lodge a petition to appeal the ruling by the three-judge appeals court to the North Carolina supreme court, or to have the higher court consider a discretionary review or the grounds for a rehearing of the appeal.
The father and daughter are in jail serving 20- to 25-year sentences and will remain in prison pending the potential appeal to the state’s supreme court.
Judge Valerie Zachary said her ruling that due to “compounding evidentiary and instructional errors” both before and during the three-week criminal trial, Mr Martens and his daughter were “prevented from presenting a meaningful defence or from receiving the full benefit of their claims of self-defense and defense of a family member.”
“As a result, the jury was denied critical evidence and rendered incapable of performing its constitutional function,” she wrote in her ruling.
The judge said that the father and daughter were entitled to a new trial.
Judge John Tyson, another North Carolina appeals court judge, agreed with her ruling, while Judge Allegra Collins agreed in part and dissented in part with the ruling.
Blows to head
Mr Corbett died after suffering at least 12 blows to the head during an incident in the early hours of August 2nd, 2015 at the couple’s home in Davidson County, North Carolina.
Mr Martens was visiting the couple along with his wife at the time.
He and his daughter claimed at trial that he struck Mr Corbett several times after he heard noises from from the couple’s bedroom and discovered the Limerick man choking his daughter.
The appeals court ruled that the jury might have reached a different result if interviews conducted by a social worker and at a child welfare centre with Mr Corbett’s children Jack and Sarah in the days after his murder had not been erroneously excluded from the trial.
The children made hearsay statements relating to alleged domestic violence and familial relationships during these interviews. Jack and Sarah said in their statements that they heard about the incidents of domestic violence from Ms Martens and her mother.
Jack reported that his father “gets mad at his mom [Molly] for no good reason” and that he once was accidentally pushed down the stairs while attempting to intervene in a fight between Mr Corbett and Ms Martens.
Sarah said during her interview that her father “is angry on a regular basis” and described an incident when Mr Corbett pulled Ms Marten’s hair and “smacked her in the face”.
The appeals judges said expert testimony regarding untested stains on Mr Martens’s boxer shorts and Ms Martens’s pajama bottoms was improperly admitted and unreliable.
The expert witness said that impact blood spatters on the boxer shorts were consistent with the wearer being close to Mr Corbett when blows were struck to his head.
The judges said that the trial court made an error in refusing to accept Mr Martens’s testimony that he heard his daughter scream, “don’t hurt my dad,” after he fell facedown on the floor of the couple’s bedroom during an alleged struggle with Mr Corbett over the baseball bat.
“Tom’s testimony was directly relevant to the reasonableness of his beliefs that the use of deadly force was necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or Molly,” Judge Zachary said in her majority ruling.
This evidence was the central issue of the case, which was “whether his use of deadly force was lawful under the circumstances,” the judge said.
Excluding this evidence made way for the prosecution’s instructions to the jury “on the aggressor doctrine, contending that ‘at that point in time [Tom] assumed some degree of aggression after there was a pause when he was longer under a continuous assault,’” she said.
Martens family reaction
Mike Earnest, spokesman for the Martens family, said he did not know if his brother-in-law and niece would be released on bail if the appeals court ruling was referred to the supreme court.
He said that the family had “complete confidence” in the appeals court ruling as they spent “an incredibly long time over their deliberations.”
“This ruling has turned the whole case against my niece and brother-in-law on its head. In the trial, Molly was found not to be the aggressor and now it has been shown that Tom wasn’t an aggressor in this case by the appeal court,” said Mr Earnest.
He said that it could take between six and 18 months before a new trial would be held.
“We have always had faith in the law and we are so thankful it has found in our family’s favour,” he said.
The appeals court said in the 169-page ruling that although Thomas and Molly Martens raised 13 issues on appeal, many of which were “interconnected and complex,” their case was “deceptively simple, boiling down to whether [they] lawfully used deadly force to defend themselves and each other during the tragic altercation with Jason.”
“Having thoroughly reviewed the record and transcript, it is evident that this is the rare case in which certain evidentiary errors, alone and in the aggregate, were so prejudicial as to inhibit the defendants’ ability to present a full and meaningful defence,” the court said.