A father and daughter who were convicted of second-degree murder in the beating death of the daughter’s husband are entitled to a new trial because the trial court didn’t allow into evidence statements from the husband’s children about his violent temper, allowed expert testimony regarding ostensible blood stains that were never proven to actually be blood, and improperly instructed the jury about self-defense, a divided North Carolina Court of Appeals has ruled.
Tom Martens was in Davidson County in 2015 to visit his daughter, Molly Corbett, and her husband, Jason Corbett, when he awoke in the middle of the night to screaming and loud voices coming from Molly and Jason’s room. Carrying a baseball bat he had brought as a gift for Jason’s son, he went upstairs and found Jason choking Molly. A violent struggle ensued, with Jason dragging Molly in a chokehold as Martens hit him with the bat.
Martens testified that he threw the bat at Jason, allowing Molly to escape his grasp. Jason shoved Martens to the floor and grabbed the bat. Martens rushed him, got the bat back, and Molly hit Jason with a paving stone. Martens continued to strike his son-in-law with the bat several times until he fell down. Jason died at the scene.
Molly and Martens claimed self-defense, but a jury convicted them in 2017 of second-degree murder, and they were each sentenced to 20 to 25 years in prsion. In a Feb. 4 decision, a divided Court of Appeals panel overturned their convictions and ordered a new trial.
“This case is deceptively simple, boiling down to whether defendants lawfully used deadly force to defend themselves and each other during the tragic altercation with Jason,” Judge Valerie Zachary wrote for the court’s majority. “It is evident that this is the rare case in which certain evidentiary errors, alone and in the aggregate, were so prejudicial as to inhibit defendants’ ability to present a full and meaningful defense.”
Corbett and Martens argued that the trial judge, W. David Lee, had erred by excluding statements that Jason’s two young children (from a previous marriage) had made right after their father died. By the time that Corbett and Martens went to trial, the children were living in Ireland with Jason’s family and couldn’t be subpoenaed to testify.
But the son had told a forensic interviewer from a children’ advocacy center that his father often lost his temper and got angry with Corbett over minor issues, that he had seen his father punch, hit, and push her, and that his father’s temper had recently gotten worse. The daughter had said that her father would get angry and hit Corbett in the face. She said she had nightmares, and if she went to their bedroom for comfort and accidentally woke Jason up, he would get angry–as happened in the early morning hours before he died.
The son also explained why there was a paving stone in the bedroom: he and Corbett were going to paint it, and she had brought it inside and put it on her desk so it wouldn’t get wet in the rain.
The jury didn’t hear those statements because prosecutors successfully argued that they were hearsay. Corbett and Martens argued that the statements were admissible under an exception to the hearsay rule for medical diagnosis or treatment because they were made to a forensic interviewer as part of a medical exam. The next day, the children saw a doctor at the advocacy center who diagnosed them as possible victims of domestic violence and recommended mental health treatment.
The Court of Appeals agreed that the statements should have been allowed into evidence.
“They were present during an extremely traumatic event involving the death of their father, and they may have been witnesses to, or victims of, domestic abuse,” Zachary wrote. “The child-friendly atmosphere [of the advocacy center] and the separation of the examination rooms do not indicate that the children’s statements during the interviews were not intended for medical purposes.”
The ruling notes that Lee had focused heavily on the children’s responses to one question that was posed to them: “Tell me why you’re here.” The son replied that he was there because his “dad died, and people are trying to take me away from my mom.”
“The trial court gleaned from these responses that the children understood the impetus behind the interviews was to affect future legal custody determinations, and not to obtain medical evaluation or treatment,” Zachary wrote. “However, children don’t have the ability to seek medical assistance without the resources, financial or otherwise, of their parents or caregivers, nor do they have the emotional acumen or language necessary to seek help when the medical need involves mental health. In asking children who lack sufficient knowledge even to verbalize the trauma that they have experienced to independently seek medical assistance, the trial court demands too much.”
The children were old and mature enough to understand the medical significance of the overall evaluations, Zachary wrote, and their statements were pertinent to medical treatment or diagnosis.
Zachary added that even if the children’s statements were inadmissible under the medical diagnosis or treatment exception, they were still admissible based on the totality of the circumstances, including statements that the children made in 2015 when the Department of Social Services investigated suspicions of abuse at the home. Evidence showed that Jason himself had told his doctor that he had recently become more tense and angry.
The majority also ruled that the trial court erred when it allowed a blood stain expert, Stuart James, to testify about spots found on the hem of Jason’s boxers and on Molly’s pajama pants. James himself wrote a book about bloodstain pattern analysis and the importance of testing to make sure that the material is real before analysis commenced. It turned out, however, that the spots in question were never tested.
“James’s analysis of the challenged evidence clearly contravened the reliability protocol established in his own treatise,” Zachary wrote. His testimony had the “powerful effect” of bolstering the prosecution’s claim that Jason was struck while he was “down and defenseless.”
“However, given that James’s testimony failed to assist the jury in determining whether this was, in fact, the case, the testimony could only serve to unduly influence the jury to reach a conclusion that it was fully capable of reaching on its own,” Zachary wrote.
The majority also found that the trial court had erred by instructing the jury about the aggressor doctrine, which dictates that someone can’t claim self-defense if they are proven to have started a violent confrontation.
“To the extent that the trial court based its ruling on Tom’s decision to arm himself with the baseball bat before joining the affray, this ruling was in error,” Zachary wrote. “The mere fact that a defendant was armed is not evidence that he was the aggressor, if he made no unlawful use of his weapon.”
Zachary wrote that the undisputed evidence does not support that anyone other Jason was the aggressor, and the first person who used deadly force.
“This error alone entitles Tom to a new trial,” Zachary wrote. “However, the trial court’s error very likely prejudiced Molly, as well.”
Judge Allegra Collins dissented in part from her colleagues, saying that the interviews were conducted in a child-friendly environment, separate and distinct from the physical examinations that the children received, and the record did not indicate that the children understood that the purpose of the interviews was to obtain medical diagnosis or treatment.
Douglas Kingsbery of Tharrington Smith in Raleigh represented Corbett. He noted that the Court of Appeals spent more than a year reviewing the case.
“The record of this case, with all the testimony and the exhibits and the transcripts, was immense,” Kingsbery said. “It’s obvious from the reading the opinion that the judges really dove into the record to try to reach the right result. I think all three judges should be commended.”
David Freedman of Winston-Salem, who represented Martens, said that he was “very relieved” by the opinion.
“I thought the court analyzed the case quite well,” he said. “It’s an extremely lengthy case and we had so many issues combing through the record, we had to narrow our scope to the page limitations of the brief.”
Freedman said that once the Court of Appeals’ mandate on the opinion is issued, he and Martens, who is currently being held in Alexander County, will discuss his options. Corbett remains in prison in Raleigh. In 2019, they settled a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Jason’s family for $750,000. The money is in a trust fund with Jason’s children as the beneficiaries.
A spokesman for the state Attorney General’s office said the office is reviewing the decision.
The 169-page opinion is State v. Corbett/Martens (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-033-20). The full text of the opinion is available online at nclawyersweekly.com
Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzonclw