Saturday 24 March 2018

Martens murder case jury faces grim task of sifting through bloody evidence

DNA, blood and fingerprints hold key to Limerick man's final moments, writes Ralph Riegel in North Carolina

Molly Martens-Corbett arrives at the Davidson County Courthouse Photo: Donnie Roberts/The Dispatch
Molly Martens-Corbett arrives at the Davidson County Courthouse Photo: Donnie Roberts/The Dispatch
Ralph Riegel

Ralph Riegel

It was if, in the very act of dying, Jason Corbett (39) left tantalising clues to his final tragic moments in his own life blood.

Prospective jurors in the trial of his father-in-law, Thomas Martens (67), and his wife, Molly Martens Corbett (33), were warned last month that the North Carolina hearing would be nothing like an episode of CSI Miami.

But, in fact, the proceedings in Courtroom C of the Davidson County Courts complex last week proved even more grimly compelling that an episode of any TV forensic 'whodunnit'.

The DNA, blood, fibre and fingerprint analysis evidence was a study in contrasts and interpretations.

The prosecution claims it proves its case that the father and daughter acted with murderous malice in the early hours of August 2, 2015, beating an unarmed and helpless man to death.

Assistant District Attorney Greg Brown said the forensic evidence supports the contention that the duo "murdered a naked and unarmed man face down on his bedroom floor".

Defence lawyers David Freedman and Walter Holton argued that, in fact, the forensic evidence corroborates the Martens's claim that they acted entirely in self-defence.

What was not in doubt as Mr Martens, a retired FBI agent and lawyer, left the witness box was the true depth of his dislike for his Irish son-in-law.

The father of four was blunt in his admission he had disdain and dislike for the Limerick native.

"He was not my favourite person," he told the courtroom. "I did not like him. I am sure I said disparaging things about him."

Mr Martens acknowledged he told his daughter he didn't think it was a good marriage and urged her to go to a lawyer and consider her divorce options. "He did not measure up to what I thought my daughter's standards should be," he bluntly said.

Mr Martens said he tried to "play nice" with his son-in-law despite his antipathy to him.

He insisted he could not recall telling a work colleague, when asked about a holiday to Washington: "Why would I want to go on vacation with that asshole."

Another colleague recalled that Mr Martens told her: "That son in law - I hate him."


Mr Corbett paid for the €350,000 luxury home he provided for Mr Martens's daughter when they married.

A €500,000 life insurance policy on Mr Corbett had, at his direction, his young wife as the main beneficiary.

Molly did not work in North Carolina except as a volunteer swimming coach. Before she took up a role as nanny for Mr Corbett's children she worked in a restaurant and had her income and accommodation supplemented by her parents.

Thomas Martens [Donnie Roberts/The Dispatch]
Thomas Martens [Donnie Roberts/The Dispatch]

Mr Martens said that, before August 2, he had never seen his Irish son-in-law ever threaten his daughter in any way.

Yet hours after arriving for an unplanned visit to Mr Corbett's home from Knoxville, some four hours away, carrying a metal baseball bat as a gift for Mr Corbett's son Jack, Mr Martens used that same Louisville Slugger bat to bludgeon his son-in-law to death.

"I hit him until I considered the threat to be over," he said after claiming he confronted Mr Corbett after finding him with his hands around Molly's throat.

Read More: Homesick Jason wanted to move back to Ireland, sister tells trial

Mr Martens denied that he was attempting to take the blame for his daughter over the tragic events that night.

"I am trying to take responsibility for what I did," he said.

"I am trying to tell you, as truthfully as I can, what I did."

Mr Martens said he could not remember multiple phone calls made to himself and his wife by their daughter as they drove the four hours along InterState 40 towards the Corbett home.

Two more elements of Mr Martens testimony were fascinating.

At no stage did he say he saw a stone paving brick being used to strike Mr Corbett despite the fact the brick was found in the bedroom soaked in blood, tissue and hair fragments.

Mr Martens also said that his wife, Sharon, never came to the blood-soaked master bedroom despite the protracted incident where Mr Corbett was bludgeoned to death.

Mrs Martens never came up to the room from her downstairs bedroom to inquire what was happening, her husband never shouted to her to call 911, and her daughter, despite claiming to have narrowly escaped strangulation, never called out to her mother for help or support.

Mrs Marten was still in the downstairs bedroom when police arrived. She asked them, from the bedroom doorway, apparently unaware of the tragedy in the room above: "Is everyone all right?"

Mr Martens also admitted that, while both his daughter and himself had training in cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR), neither attempted to perform it on Mr Corbett until told to do so by a 911 dispatcher.

The prosecution has maintained that the forensic evidence points towards what really happened in the luxury property that night.

Jason Corbett
Jason Corbett

The blood-soaked master bedroom, hallway and bathroom of the Panther Creek home provided a master class in forensic analysis.

Dr Stuart James, a Florida-based blood pattern expert, ranks as one of the foremost authorities in his field.

Read More: Blood spatters put Martens standing above Corbett's body

Davidson County Sheriff's Office contracted him to analyse the Panther Creek property and offer his opinion on the sequence of events that led to Mr Corbett's death.

In the case of the Panther Creek property, Dr James's analysis and conclusions were gripping.

He determined that Mr Corbett's head was struck repeatedly in a descending motion - from 5ft to 6ft down to 4ft to 3ft and finally to 1ft and inches off the carpet.

He also concluded, from blood transfer patterns on the bedroom wall, that Mr Corbett's bloodied head struck the wall as he was falling.

The Limerick businessman eventually came to rest in a corner of the room, just inside the bedroom door.

He was lying on his stomach and face down, a fact determined from the large blood pool which formed on the carpet from the wounded head.

Critically, Dr James found a blood impact spatter on the inside of the quilt on Mr Corbett's bed - and a blood saturation stain by the skirting board of the box frame mattress. "It may well have been where the first incident of bloodshed occurred," he said. He raised the possibility that Mr Corbett was either in his bed or by his bed when he was first struck.

Dr James also examined the blood-soaked baseball bat and garden paving brick found in the bedroom.

Pathologist Dr Craig Nelson found that Mr Corbett had sustained at least 12 severe blows to the skull. Such was the damage to his skull that an accurate count of the total number of blows could not be made.

Both the Louisville Slugger metal baseball bat and the paving brick were DNA tested and proved positive for Mr Corbett's blood. Both also contained tissue matter and hair fragments.

Dr James said that such was the blood-soaked nature of the brick that, in his opinion, it could not have been involved in just a single blow.

"The presence of blood on all surfaces of the brick are not consistent with a single impact," he said.

Dr James also noted a number of unexplained indentation marks in the walls of the bedroom and bathroom.

The indentations were round and roughly the size of a baseball bat head.

One of the indentations was just inches from the ground, fractionally above a floor skirting board and close to where Mr Corbett came to rest, face down.

Mr Martens, while acknowledging that he struck Mr Corbett in the head with the metal bat, insisted he had no recollection of striking his son-in-law while he was prone on the ground.

However, the blood spatter evidence indicated that Mr Corbett suffered blows in just such a position.

The forensic expert also studied the clothing worn by Mr Martens and Ms Martens Corbett when they were found by officers. Mr Martens was wearing a red Izod polo short and Size 36 white patterned boxer shorts. His daughter was wearing a blue-patterned pyjama suit set.

Blood impact spatters were all over the pyjamas, the polo shirt and the boxer shorts.

Critically, Dr James said that an analysis of the blood spatters on the inside lower hem of the boxer shorts and the lower leg portion of the pyjama bottoms indicated that the wearers were near Mr Corbett while he head was struck either near the ground or on the ground.

In the case of Mr Martens, blood spatters suggested that he was standing directly over Mr Corbett.

"To what extent (above), I cannot say," Dr James explained. "But they (blood spatters) would have to be travelling somewhat upwards."


Only twice so far in court have Mr Martens and Ms Martens Corbett shown emotion.

Ms Martens Corbett wept during the playing of the 14-minute 911 call made by her father at 3.02am that morning.

And Mr Martens's voice broke and his eyes welled up as he spoke of confronting Mr Corbett to defend his adored daughter.

"I was concerned he would get into the bathroom (from the bedroom) and close the door and that would be the end of that. I would not be able to save her," he sobbed.

Mr Martens insisted his son-in-law had repeatedly threatened to kill his daughter and he reacted to defend them both.

"He was really angry and I was really scared. He was going to kill one of us or both of us," Mr Martens claimed.

For the Corbetts, the family maintained a dignified silence despite visual and witness evidence which must have made them want to get up and run out of the courtroom.

The family - including Jason's sisters, Tracey and Marilyn, and several of his brothers - have travelled to North Carolina for the trial.

Last Wednesday, to mark the second anniversary of their brother's death, his former employers, Multi Packaging Solutions (MPS), staged a memorial ceremony at the Lexington plant he once managed.

The ceremony involved green, white and orange balloons being released and prayers being offered.

This week, a North Carolina jury will be asked to deliver a verdict based on where they believe Jason Corbett's blood trail clues lead.

The State case

The first blow sustained by Jason Corbett could have been while he was either in or beside his bed. Blood impact spatters were found on the inside of the quilt and a blood stain inside the skirting of the mattress frame.  

His head was struck in a descending motion - in other words he suffered repeated blows to the skull as he was falling to the ground. 

An analysis of one blood impact spatter indicated his head was either near the carpet or on the carpet when he was struck. 

Mr Corbett was lying face-down on the carpet for a period of time due to the manner in which blood pooled by his head. 

DNA tests confirmed Mr Corbett's blood and tissue was on the clothing of the father and daughter, a baseball bat and a stone garden paving brick.  n The quantity of blood, hair and tissue on almost all parts of the brick indicated it was used in far more than just a single blow. 

Mr Corbett was homesick and had planned to move back to Ireland with his children. His sister said she had not heard he was bringing his wife to a Limerick celebration for their father's 80th birthday - only his children. 

Mr Corbett had repeatedly refused to sign adoption papers allowing Ms Martens-Corbett equal rights in respect of his children. 

Ms Martens Corbett is now the main beneficiary of a €500,000 life insurance policy payable on her late husband. The money is currently held in trust. 

Traces of the sedative Trazedone were found in Mr Corbett's system. The medication was not prescribed for him. However, his wife had obtained and filled a prescription for the drug three days before his death. 

Paramedics who attended the scene commented on how "cool" Mr Corbett's body appeared and queried how long it had been before a 911 call was made.

The Defence case

Lawyers claim the prosecution has failed to show malice, a key component of a second degree murder charge in North Carolina. 

Defence lawyers claim the State case effectively corroborates the argument of the father and daughter that they acted solely in self-defence. They say not a shred of evidence has contradicted the claim that Mr Corbett was the aggressor that evening. 

The legal teams claimed that, after 23 witnesses and 150 items of evidence, at most the case indicates the possible use of excessive force - something that does not warrant a second degree murder conviction. 

There was no written evidence or flight bookings indicating that Mr Corbett planned to permanently leave North Carolina with his children and without his wife. 

Key elements of the State forensic case may be unreliable given that a blood pattern expert never actually visited the Panther Creek scene in person, was never given any forensic report on the testing of blood on a quilt as well as the fact that stains under the hem of Mr Marten's boxer shorts were never tested in the laboratory. Only stains on the front of the boxer shorts were tested. 

Both the father and daughter's evidence has been consistent from the moment that Mr Martens called 911 and said he struck his son-in-law after intervening in a domestic dispute. 

A hair strand, which appeared blonde, photographed in Mr Corbett's blood-soaked hand, was never forensically tested. 

Up to 23 people entered and left the master bedroom of the Panther Creek property before it was secured and photographed by forensic officers. 

The defence stressed that Mr Corbett had consumed at least seven drinks in the hours before his death.  

Days before his death, Mr Corbett told a nurse that: "He gets angry for no reason."

The Verdict

Once the defence case concludes, either tomorrow or Tuesday, the jury of nine women and three men will hear closing arguments from both sides.

Judge David Lee will then instruct the jury on key elements of the law and put them in charge to consider a verdict.

Any verdict that the jury returns must be unanimous - under North Carolina law majority verdicts are not permitted.

The jury can be given whatever time Judge Lee determines appropriate to consider their verdict.

Under North Carolina law, a conviction for second degree murder can carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment without parole.

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