New trial for East Tennesseans convicted in 2015 murder case

Published: Mar. 13, 2021 at 7:41 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 14, 2021 at 10:40 PM EDT
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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina’s highest court ruled Friday that a woman must get a new trial in her husband’s 2015 beating death and granted the same to her father, agreeing evidence had been wrongly excluded that weakened their ability to argue they acted in self-defense.

A 4-3 majority on the state Supreme Court sided with a lower appeals court decision that reversed a jury’s second-degree murder convictions of Molly Corbett and Thomas Martens, a retired FBI agent, in the death of Irish businessman Jason Corbett.

Each was sentenced from 20 to 25 years in prison for the death of the 39-year-old man at the Corbetts’ home in a golf course community in Davidson County. Investigators said they used an aluminum baseball bat and brick paver to kill Jason Corbett, fracturing his skull and causing injuries to his arm, legs and torso.

The father and daughter said they used deadly force because they feared for their lives. Martens, who lived in Tennessee, testified at their 2017 trial that he had awakened at night at the Corbetts’ home by noises and a scream. He said he found the couple in their bedroom, and Jason Corbett with his hands around Molly Corbett’s neck saying “I’m going to kill her,” according to the ruling. Molly Corbett didn’t testify.

In the majority opinion, Associate Justice Anita Earls wrote that Superior Court Judge David Lee erred chiefly by excluding evidence from trial that would have been central to the pair’s defense. That’s in keeping with the majority on a state Court of Appeals panel in 2020.

Earls pointed to omitted statements that the Corbetts’ two children had made during a medical evaluation soon after the death that indicated their father had been abusive in the home. Lee ruled the statements weren’t trustworthy, pointing out the children had recanted some previous accusations in a later interview with prosecutors and in diary entries.

But the reversal “in no way calls into question all of the statements the children made,” Earls wrote. The children’s statements suggested Jason Corbett had been increasingly angry and gotten mad the night of his death when his 7-year-old daughter couldn’t fall asleep, according to the ruling.

Without the evidence, “it was easier for the jury to conclude that Tom and Molly had invented their story in an effort to cover up their crime and falsely assert that they acted in self-defense,” Earls wrote.

Judge Phil Berger Jr. wrote the dissenting opinion, saying the convictions should have been restored. He said Lee didn’t abuse his discretion when ruling on the issues identified, including the children’s statements.

“The evidence against (the) defendants in this case was overwhelming,” Berger wrote. “Each defendant had the opportunity to argue and present their arguments of self-defense to the jury.” The 4-3 decision fell upon party lines, with the court’s registered Democrats agreeing to the new trial.

The court’s majority also left intact a portion of the Court of Appeals ruling that determined Lee had erred by admitting some expert testimony about blood spatter in the bedroom.

Jason Corbett met Molly Corbett when she worked in Ireland as an au pair for the children from his first marriage, according to filings. His first wife had died earlier from asthma-related complications. The four moved to Davidson County in 2011 and Jason and Molly married that year.

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