Why will Jason Corbett’s killers get a re-trial?
Thomas and Molly Martens granted new trial as judges find ‘critical’ evidence excluded
Molly Martens and her father Thomas Martens pictured during their trial in 2017. Photographs: Donnie Roberts/The Dispatch
Thomas and Molly Martens managed to secure a retrial on their murder convictions for killing Limerick man Jason Corbett because they were prevented from fully arguing their case that they had used lethal force against the the father of two in an act of self defence.
This was the majority ruling of three US appeals court judges in North Carolina, weighing up the appeal from the father and daughter that they did not receive a fair trial in 2017.
The ruling overturns the murder convictions of the former FBI agent and his daughter.
Four and a half years after the murder of Mr Corbett, his second wife and his father-in-law have succeeded in having their case sent for a new trial.
Three appeals judges, two ruling and one partly agreed and partly disagreeing, found that evidentiary errors were “so prejudicial” that they inhibited the ability of the 69-year-old retired FBI agent and his 35-year-old daughter to “present a full and meaningful defence”.
Their case boiled down to whether they had lawfully used deadly force to defend themselves and the judges found that “critical” evidence was improperly excluded from the jury.
The pair should, the judges ruled, have been entitled to have certain evidence presented to the jury during their three-week murder trial in the summer of 2017.
Some of the evidence related to statements made by Jack and Sarah Corbett, Mr Corbett’s children from his first marriage, in the days immediately after their father’s killing.
Other evidence related to what happened after Thomas Martens discovered - according to his testimony - his son-in-law attempting to choke his daughter in their bedroom of their North Carolina home on the night of August 1st-2nd, 2015 and the ensuing struggle between the men.
That altercation resulted in Mr Corbett receiving, according to prosecutors, at least 12 blows to the head with a brick and a baseball bat, resulting in death by blunt force head trauma.
One piece of evidence identified by the appeals court that was struck out at trial was Thomas Martens’s testimony that he heard his daughter scream, “Don’t hurt my dad,” after he fell face first to the ground in the struggle with Mr Corbett for the baseball bat.
The appeals judges said this evidence was admissible and should not have been excluded because it was directly relevant to whether Martens used lawful deadly force to defend himself.
Because of its exclusion, the judges said, the state’s prosecutors were able to make the case that the retired FBI agent was the aggressor, arguing that Thomas Martens assumed some degree of aggression after a period when he was “no longer under a continuous assault”.
While this entitled Martens to a new trial, this “instructional error”, the appeals court judges said, “very likely confused the issues for the jury in Molly’s case as well”.
In addition, the judges said the jury may not have convicted Thomas and Molly Martens of second-degree murder in August 2017 had there not been an “erroneous” exclusion of hearsay statements made by Jason’s children Jack and Sarah to social workers about their father’s alleged violent conduct prior to the night of his death.
Their statements detail instances of alleged past domestic violence between Mr Corbett and Molly Martens - relayed to them by her - and evidence around what they understood had happened on the night of their father’s killing.
The appeals court also found the trial judge improperly admitted “unreliable” expert testimony on untested stains on Thomas Martens’s boxer shorts and Molly Martens’s pajamas that state prosecutors said showed blood splatters putting Thomas in close proximity to Mr Corbett when he received the blows to this head.
The Martens, currently serving 20 to 25 years in prison for second-degree murder, will remain in custody pending the procedural steps in the cause.
Because this was a majority rather than a unanimous ruling by the three appeals court judges - one judge disagreed in part - prosecutors can ask the court to review their ruling or look to new evidence.
Prosecutors have until around March 10th to make this request or to petition North Carolina’s supreme court to review the decision to grant the defendants a new trial.