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Father and daughter convicted of killing Jason Corbett in Davidson County were not given a fair trial, lawyers argue before N.C. Court of Appeals
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Father and daughter convicted of killing Jason Corbett in Davidson County were not given a fair trial, lawyers argue before N.C. Court of Appeals

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RALEIGH — The attorneys representing Thomas Martens and Molly Corbett were clear Thursday morning — the father and daughter who are serving up to 25 years in prison for the murder of Irish businessman Jason Corbett were unfairly convicted by a judge's decisions to exclude critical evidence that would have corroborated their self-defense claims.

“All we’re asking for is a fair trial,” David Freedman, one of the attorneys representing Martens, told a three-judge panel of the N.C. Court of Appeals.

The judges hearing the case Thursday were John M. Tyson, Valerie Zachary and Allegra Collins. It will be months before the judges issue a written decision that could determine if the convictions are upheld or overturned.

On Aug. 9, 2017, after a monthlong trial, a Davidson County jury found Corbett and Martens, a former FBI agent, guilty of second-degree murder. Judge David Lee of Davidson Superior Court sentenced each of them to 20 years to 25 years in prison. It was a high-profile trial that attracted the attention of the TV news programs “20/20” and “Dateline,” and Irish journalists.

It was no different Thursday morning. The courtroom was packed with observers that included Jason Corbett’s friends and his family, including his sister, Tracey Lynch, who traveled from Ireland. Members of Molly Corbett’s family, such as her three brothers, and other friends and family also came. Lynch recently published a book, “My Brother Jason,” in which she portrays Molly as an unstable woman who lied and connived her way into Jason’s life and planned his murder.

During the trial, Davidson County prosecutors painted a brutal picture of the crime — Jason Corbett’s nude body was found in the early hours of Aug. 2, 2015, in the master bedroom of the house at 160 Panther Creek Court in the Meadowlands, an upscale golf-community in Davidson County, that he shared with Molly, his second wife, and his two children from his first marriage, Jack and Sarah. Jason and Molly had met in Ireland when Jason hired the Tennessee native to be an au pair for his children. The two started dating and married in 2011 before settling in their house in Davidson County.

But prosecutors said Molly Corbett, using a concrete paving brick, and Martens, holding a 28-inch-long Louisville Slugger baseball bat, beat Jason Corbett to death that August morning in 2015, a beating so severe that his skull was crushed and bits of that skull fell out during a medical examination. A medical examiner testified that Corbett was hit at least 12 different times in the head.

Martens and Molly Corbett told a different story — they said Jason was a violent man who became angry when he was awakened in the middle of the night and proceeded to choke Molly. Martens, who was visiting Molly with his wife, Sharon, heard noises while in the basement bedroom, grabbed the baseball bat and went upstairs only to see Jason choking Molly. When Jason refused to let Molly go and threatened to kill her, Martens said he began beating Jason in what he described to investigators as a donnybrook, or uncontrolled fight. Molly Corbett said in a statement to law-enforcement authorities that she tried to hit Jason with the paving brick.

Freedman told the appellate judges Thursday that Lee excluded critical evidence that would have bolstered the self-defense claims. One of the key pieces of evidence that Lee did not admit were statements that Jack and Sarah made to social workers that their father physically and emotionally abused their stepmother, Freedman said.

Allowing the statements to be admitted would have helped jurors understand the state of mind Martens and Molly Corbett were in on Aug. 2, 2015, he said.

Prosecutors had a medical provider testify that two weeks before Jason died, he said he was getting angry for no apparent reason. The children’s statements would have put Jason’s comment in context, according to Freedman and Douglas Kingsbery, Molly Corbett’s attorney.

Lee also should have admitted a statement that Martens made, Freedman said, explaining that in that statement, Martens said Michael Fitzpatrick, the father of Jason’s first wife, told him he believed Jason was responsible for his daughter’s death. Freedman said he wasn’t trying to prove that the statement was true but wanted to offer it to help the jurors understand his state of mind.

Michael Fitzpatrick, who died before the trial, signed an affidavit denying that he had ever made such a statement.

An autopsy showed that Margaret Fitzpatrick Corbett died in November 2006 of a cardiac arrest stemming from an asthma attack.

Also at issue were allegations of jury misconduct. Freedman and Kingsbery argued that there was evidence that jurors talked about the case outside deliberation. Freedman cited jury foreman Tom Aamland, who gave interviews in which he said there were “private conversations.” Nancy Perez, another juror, vomited after seeing autopsy photos during the trial but told Lee that she had skipped breakfast and would be fine for the rest of the trial. But in an interview with “20/20,” she said the autopsy photos had made her sick. Freedman said this was proof that Perez had been untruthful.

State prosecutors have said that there’s no evidence that would be admissible in a court of law. But Freedman argued that the jury clearly considered evidence that was never presented in court but likely existed on social media.

Jonathan Babb, a state prosecutor with the N.C. Attorney General’s Office, said all the physical evidence in the case contradicted the self-defense claim. Jason Corbett had two complex fractures on his head, meaning that he was struck multiple times in that area. He also had 10 other impact areas around his head. If there had been a confrontation as described by Martens, there would have been no way that Corbett could have had impact areas in the back of his head.

Mike Dodd, also a state prosecutor, said he was troubled by the fact that Davidson County prosecutors went for second-degree murder.

“This case seems strange to me,” Dodd said. “This case could be brought as first-degree.”

He said all the elements for first-degree are in the case, including the brutality of the beating and the lack of physical injuries on the defendants.

Freedman shot back that a grand jury had indicted the two on charges of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter.

“For Dodd to substitute his judgment for the grand jury is surprising to me,” he said.

He argued that the evidence in the case corroborates what Martens testified to during trial and what they both told law-enforcement authorities immediately after Corbett’s death. The blood spatter tracks with how Martens said the fight moved from the bedroom to the hallway and back to the bedroom, Freedman argued.

The hearing was over after more than an hour. Lynch, along with her husband, David, left the courtroom without any comment. She has declined comment throughout, except for statements she made after the trial and to the Irish media.

Michael Earnest, Molly Corbett’s uncle, said Martens and Corbett are innocent. He has visited them and said they are strong. He said the N.C. Court of Appeals was presented with evidence that showed Molly Corbett and Martens did not get a fair trial.

“Tom and Molly need to be set free,” he said.

mhewlett@wsjournal.com 336-727-7326 @mhewlettWSJ

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