Anyone interested in the appeal of the murder convictions of Thomas Martens and Molly Corbett — the father and daughter convicted in 2017 of killing Irish businessman Jason Corbett — must wait.
That means the trial judge whose rulings are being questioned, defense lawyers and prosecutors. Family, friends, supporters and courthouse gadflies, too.
A three-judge panel from the N.C. Court of Appeals heard arguments in late January. The defense maintained that Judge David Lee made poor decisions in excluding evidence that bolsters claims of self-defense. Prosecutors say Lee was right, the killing was gruesome and that the convictions should stand.
That was seven months ago. A long time, but nothing compared to a 20-year prison sentence.
The appeals court moves according to its own schedule. Decisions are released twice a month — when they’re ready. Justice is blind and often slow. Judges are supposed to be deliberate.
Everyone, that is, except Jason Corbett’s family. They’ve asked Irish diplomats to inquire — essentially putting the full weight of the Irish government behind pressuring an American court.
State v. Corbett and Martens has been an international story since the wee hours of Aug. 2, 2015, when the nude body of Jason Corbett was found in the master bedroom of his house in an upscale golf community in Davidson County.
His skull had been bashed in. Molly Corbett, Jason Corbett’s second wife, and Martens told deputies that Corbett was prone to violence and had attacked Molly after being awakened in the middle of the night.
Jason Corbett, they said, was choking Molly and threatening to kill her. Martens, who had been visiting at the time, grabbed a baseball bat and defended his daughter. Molly Corbett told investigators that she tried to hit him with a paving brick once she’d broken free.
Prosecutors presented a different version of events. During the month-long trial in 2017, they stressed the savage nature of the beating and said the lack of obvious defensive injuries to either Molly Corbett or Martens punched holes in claims of self-defense.
The trial attracted international attention. Newspapers from Ireland dispatched correspondents to Lexington, and American TV-news programs such as “20/20” and “Dateline” featured the case.
And why wouldn’t they? The whole affair reads like a bad made-for-TV movie. Money and homicide sell.
Martens was a retired FBI agent — more bookish accountant than swashbuckling G-man — but a federal law-enforcement officer nonetheless. Molly Corbett, a petite blonde, had met Jason in Ireland when he hired her to work as an au pair for his two children from his first marriage.
Jason Corbett’s family maintained (then and now) that Molly is an unstable gold digger who connived her way into his life and then planned his murder.
The flip side — there’s always a flip side — was the defense arguing that Jason Corbett was basically violent and a heavy drinker. A medical provider called by the prosecution testified that Jason Corbett had sought treatment two weeks before he died because he’d been getting angry for no apparent reason.
The jury sided with the prosecution, obviously, and found Martens and Molly Corbett guilty of second-degree murder. Judge Lee sentenced each to between 20 and 25 years in prison.
Bigger issues at stake
With money involved — civil cases for wrongful death were settled for $750,000 earlier this year — and because there were credible charges of judicial error and jury misconduct, the convictions were appealed.
David Freedman, one of Martens’ attorneys, told the N.C. Court of Appeals that Lee erred in several ways.
For example, Lee refused to allow jurors to hear statements made by Corbett’s children to social workers that their father was physically and emotionally abusive toward Molly Corbett.
Some of the social workers were employed by Dragonfly, a state-financed counseling center established in part to help traumatized children give reliable statements for use in court. Who’d want a kid who has been sexually abused to have to sit for multiple interviews by cops or defense lawyers?
If the appeals court declines to rule in favor of that part of the appeal, expect lawyers defending the worst pedophiles to ask judges to bar victims’ statements and attack the center’s credibility.
But that’s just part of it. Allegations of misconduct by jurors also play a role.
Freedman argued in January that individual jurors discussed the case in private conversations — a massive no-go zone that every judge in North Carolina warns against every single time a jury leaves to use the bathroom, eat or smoke.
In the Corbett case alone, that added up to more than 40 such admonishments. And the foreman told reporters after the trial that jurors had had “private conversations.”
All that took place in Raleigh over the course of an hour, and that January hearing was no different than the original trial.
The courtroom was filled with Jason Corbett’s family and supporters, some of whom had traveled from Ireland. Molly Corbett’s people attended, too. The Court of Appeals ordinarily attracts few crowds.
The circus roiled in all three rings that January morning and it kicked back into gear earlier this week after another Court of Appeals decision day came and went with no updates.
A story published Monday in The Independent, a British online newspaper, has it that Jason Corbett’s sister has asked the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs in writing to find out what’s going on.
“Irish diplomats have been asked to raise the seven-month delay in delivering a ruling on the North Carolina appeal as the family … warned they feel trapped in ‘a never-ending legal nightmare,’” the story reads in part.
The Problem is, in this country anyway, justice is supposed to be blind. And deliberate.
The Court of Appeals will issue its decision when it’s ready and not one minute before. Everyone must wait. And that includes foreign governments nosing into American legal affairs.