Sunday 18 March 2018

Anatomy of a murder: the brutal killing of Jason Corbett

Verdict of the jury in the trial that gripped Ireland and the US rested as much on what was not said, as on the harrowing evidence itself

Jason Corbett was found dead in his home in North Carolina
Jason Corbett was found dead in his home in North Carolina
Molly Martens
Ralph Riegel

Ralph Riegel

In the end, it all boiled down to the fact that American jurors are no different to their Irish counterparts.

Molly Martens-Corbett and her father, Thomas Michael Martens, are now 72 hours into 20-year jail terms for the second-degree murder of Irish businessman Jason Corbett (39).

Their convictions were as much underpinned by what wasn't said in a North Carolina courthouse over the past four weeks as for what was revealed in evidence.

The father and daughter, if they contemplate the dramatic and emotion-charged events of last Wednesday morning in Courtroom C of the Davidson County courts complex in Lexington, will probably wonder precisely where the murder trial hinged?

When did the jury of nine women and three men swing towards a second-degree murder conviction rather than believing the story of self-defence? Was it the dramatic forensic evidence of blood spatter expert Dr Stuart James?

The Florida-based expert, one of the world's leading authorities on blood spatter analysis, effectively recreated the last moments of the Limerick father-of-two's life in the early hours of August 2, 2015 in the bedroom of his luxury home.

He determined that Mr Corbett may very well have suffered the first of at least 12 horrific blows to his head while in or by his bed.

He also determined that Mr Corbett's head was repeatedly struck in a descending motion - in other words as he fell to the ground.

Dr James also found, from blood impact spatters, that Mr Corbett was struck while on the ground - and with his wife and father-in-law standing over him.

"There were little bits of Jason all over her," Assistant District Attorney Alan Martin would tell the trial. "That puts her in the thick of it. It is rock solid evidence. That puts her there."

Thomas Martens in a photo taken after the murder
Thomas Martens in a photo taken after the murder

Dr James found blood spatters on the inside lower hem of Mr Martens's boxer shorts which meant he had to have been standing directly over Mr Corbett when his skull was struck.

Pathology evidence indicated Mr Corbett then sustained between one and four blows to the skull when he was already dead.

Or perhaps the 33-year-old former Knoxville model and swim coach, and her father, a retired FBI agent and counter-intelligence operative, will consider the remarkable forensic work at the Panther Creek Court scene of Lt Frank Young. He preserved the clothing worn by the duo at the scene - and he compiled a video and photographic record of the property hailed as "truly excellent" by Dr James.

Thanks to his photographic record of the blood-soaked bedroom, hallway and bathroom, Dr James was able to do his work.

But in truth, the father and daughter are probably much more likely to focus on what wasn't said in Courtroom C over the three weeks of harrowing evidence in the case.

Jury foreman Tom Aamland revealed that the jury were intrigued by a number of obvious issues that weren't clarified - particularly by the Martens version of precisely what happened in the master bedroom that night.

Just like Irish jurors, an instinctive sense of curiosity, allied to a healthy common sense perception of something out of the ordinary, flooded through the North Carolina jury.

What was the young Tennessee woman doing with a heavy and unsightly concrete garden paving brick on her nightstand table that night?

"We all wondered what it was doing there," Mr Aamland said after the trial finished. No explanation was ever offered to the trial.

But there were other unanswered questions.

How on Earth could a 39-year-old, six-foot and 16-stone man grab his wife by the throat and then get engaged in a life-and-death tussle with a 67-year-old retiree and not leave a single mark on either of them?

Martens-Corbett's clothing wasn't torn, there were no marks on her neck and a delicate filigree bracelet on her wrist wasn't bent, damaged or scratched despite the ordeal she just claimed she had just gone through.

In that death struggle which ended with Mr Corbett sustaining head injuries so savage they were compared to those in a severe car crash or a fall from a great height, how could Martens recall almost every single blow struck with a metal Louisville Slugger baseball bat and yet not have a single recollection of his son-in-law being struck by a brick?

That was despite the fact the brick was not only soaked in the Limerick man's blood but was also embedded with his hair fragments and tissue.

When it was lifted by forensic experts from the bedroom floor, it left its outline in blood on the carpet. Martens similarly hadn't a single mark on him - and his clothing was likewise intact and not torn. The questions for the jury just kept mounting.

How did the powerful sedative Trazedone end up in Mr Corbett's system when the medication was prescribed for his wife just two days earlier?

But perhaps most intriguing of all for the jurors was the single most glaring omission from the accounts of both the father and daughter - where was Sharon Martens, their wife and mother, during the violent and prolonged confrontation?

Read More: Killer sought to take place of children's mother, at the ultimate cost

Martens said he was awoken from sleep in the basement bedroom by the sounds of a scream coming from upstairs.

Before the counter-intelligence operative and lawyer had even testified to that fact in court, he had given a pre-trial interview outlining precisely the same sequence of events to ABC's '20/20' programme, one of the top shows in the US.

Jason Corbett and his wife Molly
Jason Corbett and his wife Molly

It was almost as if, in anticipating a negative outcome to the North Carolina trial, the father and daughter were attempting to lay the groundwork for public sympathy for a subsequent appeal.

Back on August 2, at 3am, Mrs Martens apparently never awoke and stayed firmly in the basement bedroom.

This was despite the "life or death fight" that the former FBI agent said he got engaged in upstairs with his son-in-law.

This included shouting and blows to the head which left Mr Corbett's blood spattered all over three separate rooms.

Throughout it all, Mrs Martens apparently never budged from the basement bedroom.

After Mr Corbett was left in a bloody pulp on his own bedroom floor, the father and daughter never called out to Mrs Martens for help or support.

She never ventured upstairs to see what had happened and neither Martens nor Martens-Corbett called on the mother-of-four to immediately call 911.

When Davidson County police officers arrived at the scene and brought the two children, Jack and Sarah, down from their bedrooms, Mrs Martens was still in the bedroom and in total ignorance of the horror that had unfolded upstairs just metres away from her.

"It just makes no sense," Mr Martin said.

"It is like she vanished from the face of the Earth in Tom Martens's testimony."

Mr Aamland revealed that jurors were clearly taken by aspects of the prosecution case.

This ranged from the forensic evidence to the powerful closing arguments of Mr Martin and Assistant District Attorney Greg Brown.

In concise reference to evidence from paramedics and the 911 dispatcher, Mr Brown told the jury they contended the father and daughter beat Mr Corbett into a bloodied pulp on the bedroom floor and then cruelly left him to die.

They delayed calling 911 to ensure he was dead - and then engaged in a charade of "fake" cardiac pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) efforts while a 911 dispatcher listened on the line.

Despite having allegedly performed 600 chest pumps between them on Mr Corbett's blood-soaked chest, there was no blood found on the palms of either the father or daughter.

Mr Martin went even further.

He said the jury could infer whether there had been an attempt to drug Mr Corbett with a fresh mint Mojito on the evening of August 1? There had also been multiple calls - more than half a dozen - made by Martens-Corbett to her parents as they made the four-hour drive from Knoxville for the unexpected visit to the Corbett home.

In evidence, Martens said he could not recall the phone calls from his daughter.

Mr Aamland revealed that, having been asked to consider a verdict by Judge David Lee at 3.22pm on Tuesday, the jurors were already unanimously agreed that first night that Martens was guilty of second-degree murder.

The jurors had indicated, in a preliminary vote, they were split 10-2 on whether Martens-Corbett was guilty of second-degree murder.

However by 11am the following day, the two dissenting jurors had reviewed the evidence and changed their minds.

At 11.25am, Mr Aamland confirmed to Judge Lee and a shocked courtroom that unanimous verdicts had been reached.

Martens-Corbett began sobbing before either she or her father were taken into custody for 15 minutes before Judge Lee dealt with sentencing.

"I'm really sorry, Mom - I wish he'd just killed me," she wept.

Her father, after 40 years in law enforcement, remained calm and impassive, assisting bailiffs and sheriffs by holding his hands directly out behind him so he could be handcuffed.

Read More: Jason asleep as Molly attacked, jurors believed

In the public gallery there were tears of two different kinds.

On the right side of the court, the Corbett family, their friends and supporters wept in relief.

Throughout, the family's dignified and courageous approach to the case impressed all who witnessed it.

Across the aisle, members of the Martens family sobbed uncontrollably. Some were visibly devastated by the verdicts.

Mrs Martens wept and had to be comforted by her brother, Federal employee and Afghanistan Reconstruction Executive official Michael Earnest.

Her son sobbed so much he had to hold his head in his hands in a bid to regain his composure.

Mr Aamland admitted it was difficult for the jury, too.

Five jurors wept openly as the verdict was handed down and, minutes later, once again as the father and daughter received minimum 20-year prison sentences.

When they were brought back into the court, the father and daughter were a study in contrasts.

Martens was impassive but clearly worried as to the upset of his daughter and wife.

Martens-Corbett was physically shaking with emotion.

When her father declined the opportunity to address the court, she spoke briefly in an address that was almost incoherent due to sobs and wails.

"I did not murder my husband," she cried. "My father did not murder my husband.

"The incidents of August 2 happened as they happened on a somewhat regular basis.

"The only difference is my father was there," she sobbed.

Minutes later, the duo were led out of Courtroom C in a phalanx of armed Davidson County bailiffs and sheriffs.

Just over two hours later, they had changed from their clothing - a simple blue dress and a smart dark suit - into prison issue clothing.

Both wore handcuffs tied to waist chains as they walked to the waiting prison truck for transfer to high security prisons in Raleigh.

In Martens's case it was to Central Prison, where he was placed in special protective custody given his law enforcement background.

In Martens-Corbett's case, it was to the North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women.

She arrived with a recommendation from Judge Lee that she receive whatever psychological and psychiatric supports she might require.

Before their prison van left Lexington, their legal teams confirmed they intended to lodge challenges to the convictions with the North Carolina Court of Appeals.

Mr Earnest, visibly shocked by the verdict, briefly spoke to reporters outside the courthouse.

"I just want to say, in my opinion, in my personal life this is the most atrocious miscarriage of justice I have ever been a part of," he said.

Outside the Davidson Courts complex, on Salem Street, just metres from Lexington Post Office, the Corbett family issued a public statement of thanks to the jury, the District Attorney's Office and the Davidson County Sheriff's Department.

Jason's sister, Tracey Lynch, spoke as she was greeted by a bank of TV crews and photographers.

Before they had even left the court building, the family were planning flights back home to the greater Limerick area.

After four weeks in the searing heat of a North Carolina summer, the rain of Ireland was something everyone was looking forward to.

Mrs Lynch, flanked by her sister Marilyn, said their family's priority now was providing a safe, happy and positive future for two children who lost both parents to tragedies before they were 10 years old.

"We want to create a good future for Jason's two children who he loved so much," she said.

Minutes earlier, Assistant District Attorney Alan Martin had summed up the mood of all who attended the gruelling trial which came to dominate headlines on both sides of the Atlantic.

"There is no joy, there is no triumph, there is no pride. There is just grief, grief and more grief," he said.

Irish Independent

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