Over some 21 years in office, Garry Frank, the elected district attorney for Davidson and Davie counties, has seen, heard and dealt with more than his share of high-profile, high-pressure tabloid-worthy cases.
His district, 33, is relatively small and covers two counties. Davidson County is home to 167,609 souls and next door Davie 42,346. One might think it’d be relatively low-key.
And yet Frank and his assistants have been enmeshed time and again in such don’t-dare-look-away cases as taking down a flamboyant, corrupt sheriff, losing a murder trial brought against a well-known dentist who nearly cut off his estranged wife’s head and twice now, a murder case that makes headlines on two continents.
State v. Thomas Martens and Molly Corbett, the Sequel, officially started Wednesday. A spacious, new courtroom was filled to its maximum COVID-capacity to hear Judge Mark Klass set bond at $200,000 each, clearing the way for father and daughter to walk free after nearly four years in prison.
“It’s a huge first step,” said Mike Earnest, Martens’ brother-in-law and de facto family spokesman, in the hallway after an initial rush of emotion had subsided. “But we know it’s not over.”
Far from it. The journey has only just re-started and it’s already bumpy.
Back to square one
Anyone who’s truly shocked that Martens and Corbett were freed on bond in the do-over in state v. Martens/Corbett just hasn’t been paying attention.
Jurors, who’re told not to discuss the case every time they blink, managed to do just that during the first trial in 2017, according to affidavits, and individual jurors couldn’t resist talking to network TV news programs.
And Judge David Lee, who presided over the original trial, managed to make a tough situation worse by making evidentiary errors so bad that two appellate courts — the N.C. Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court — agreed that a new trial was the only fair option.
Many observers might concur, too. But not Jason Corbett’s family. Corbett’s Irish clan, since his death in 2015, have not been shy about voicing opinions about what happened nor have they held their tongues over the fates of Martens and Molly Corbett: lock ‘em up and toss the key.
That’s understandable. Grief runs deep, and vengeance, for some, serves as a salve.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Assistant District Attorney Alan Martin told Klass that Jason Corbett’s family held a “strong desire that they be denied bail.”
Never mind the fact that in these United States, Martens and Molly Corbett once again enjoy the presumption of innocence and bond is not to be punitive.
Last week, even before Martens and his daughter were moved from state prison to the confines of the Davidson County Jail, Tracey Corbett Lynch, Jason Corbett’s sister, went on the attack by taking a swipe at Frank, the man who has been looking out for them since 2015.
“We are devastated that the District Attorney for Davidson County has decided to offer a plea deal and not seek a retrial of Tom and Molly Martens who admitted killing Jason Corbett, leaving his children, then 10 and 8, orphaned,” Corbett Lynch said in her e-mailed statement.
“What does it say for justice in North Carolina that you can drug a father of two, then beat him to death with a baseball bat and a paving brick, literally crush his skull, and still escape a murder conviction.”
That’s one opinion. It says the nuance of the American justice may have been lost.
The opinion that counts
The opinion that matters is what Garry Frank thinks. He decides what pleas to offer or whether to offer one at all — not the victims’ families nor a judge or defense lawyer.
His prosecutors won Round One, securing in summer 2017 guilty convictions against Martens and Molly Corbett for second-degree murder. Father and daughter each got between 20 and 25 years in prison.
A more than credible case was made that Martens and Molly acted in self-defense. Fear of losing one’s life is a hell of a motivator.
“There was very strong evidence that Tom saved Molly’s life that night,” Earnest said. “He was doing what any of us who are fathers would do if we found ourselves in that moment, and that was to defend his daughter.”
That puts a plea to manslaughter in play and well within the definition of what’s just. The sentence for a manslaughter conviction would be very close to the time Martens and Molly Corbett have served already.
Is that an ideal solution?
No, because there is no perfect answer for the killing of a human being.
Frank knows better than anyone else that prosecutors represent the state of North Carolina, the people in their districts and the taxpayers who finance the justice system — not the families of the victims, no matter how loud or insistent they may be.
“I’ve got a number of families, victims of homicides and other cases that have been waiting for their cases to be tried for a long time,” Frank said last week. “And we’ve been on an imposed sabbatical on that for the past year.
“The pursuit of justice is rarely easy and that’s the guiding star that we’re trying to keep our sight on for all of this and we’re here for the duration.”