Irishman Jason Corbett was killed by his wife and her father. Today at 2.30pm Irish time, a court in North Carolina will begin hearing evidence to establish if it was murder or self defence, writes Joe Leogue.
Today, the counter reaches zero.
More than 20,000 people have liked the Facebook page, and hundreds interact with its daily posts. In the past two years, the majority of the updates have been motivational messages, words of comfort for those who have lost a loved one.
Most users hit ‘like’ on each message, or post a heart or a tearful emoji as a small, instant token of solidarity. Of those who leave a comment — and each post usually attracts dozens — many repeat the same message: #JusticeForJason.
Over the past week, the Bring Justice For Jason page has been counting down to today, Monday, July 17, when a murder trial that will be watched keenly on both sides of the Atlantic gets under way.
The trial at the centre of international attention is not a hearing to determine who killed Limerick man Jason Corbett. We know that his wife, Molly Martens, 35, and her father Thomas Martens, 67, took the Irish businessman’s life on August 2, 2015 in his North Carolina home.
What the jury sworn in this week will seek to determine is whether the Martens acted in self-defence during the altercation that led to the 39-year-old’s death — or if they were aggressors who unlawfully killed the father of two.
If the pre-trial wranglings between the defence and prosecution are anything to go by, the trial will be a contentious affair, during which allegations of abuse and aggression will fly in both directions.
What is beyond doubt is that at 3.04am on the morning in question, Thomas Martens made an emergency call from the master bedroom of the house his daughter shared with Jason Corbett and Jason’s two children from a previous marriage. The tape of the 911 call was subsequently released to the media.
“My daughter’s husband, my son-in-law, got in a fight with my daughter. I intervened and I think… he’s in bad shape. We need help,” the former FBI official told operators.
“He’s bleeding all over and I may have killed him.”
By the time the emergency services arrived, Jason Corbett was dead — his autopsy report showed he died as a result of blunt force head trauma. The pathologist found that Corbett suffered multiple lacerations, abrasions, and contusions of the head, extensive skull fractures and haemorrhages, as well as other blunt-force injuries: scattered abrasions and contusions of torso and extremities.
It states that according to the case call, Mr Corbett “was apparently involved in an altercation in which he was possibly struck with a baseball bat and/or landscaping stone”.
Beyond that, we are relying on accounts from the Martens, and evidence from the investigating police, to fill in the rest of the story.
Neither the account from the Martens nor the prosecution’s narrative will go unchallenged, and the custody battle over Mr Corbett’s children and the pre-trial submissions indicate that there will be testimony that will upset and enrage both the deceased’s family and those who support the accused.
The battle for custody of Mr Corbett’s two children was the first indication that the fallout from his death would be acrimonious.
Just weeks after his death, Mr Corbett’s sister Tracey Lynch and her husband David won custody of Jack, 12, and Sarah, 10, having flown from Limerick to North Carolina following
Mr Corbett’s death.
Mr Corbett’s first wife Margaret — mother to Jack and Sarah — died following an asthma attack in 2006.
In 2008, Mr Corbett hired Ms Martens as an au pair for the children. The pair eventually became romantically involved and married in 2011. However, Mr Corbett’s will predated his marriage to Ms Martens, and named his sister as the children’s guardian. In his ruling, Clerk of the Superior Court, Brian Shipwash said the children were citizens of Ireland.
“If the fact pattern were just the opposite, and they were United States citizens, I would want to bring these children back to the US, where the extended family would be waiting to embrace them,” he said.
However that was not the end of the custody battle, and Ms Martens launched an
appeal that was lost the following December when Superior Court Judge Ted Royster upheld Shipwash’s ruling.
Ms Martens took to Facebook to criticise the decision.
“Our lives do not matter in the eyes of the law,” she wrote. A will made when you were “infants,” and before I came into your lives is what matters.
“I am heartbroken, and devastatingly sorry. Our lives together may not have mattered in the eyes of the Law, but they are what matters most to me.
“Jack and Sarah — I love you and will always be your mommy,” she wrote.
While relieved at the ruling, the Corbett family was upset at Ms Martens’ decision to appeal the August decision, drawing out the custody battle for another three months.
“The crux of this, to be brutally honest, is that the deliberate, obstructive, cruel, way that the Martens family is carrying out this prolonged pain on my family is unforgivable,” Jason’s brother, John, told RTÉ following Molly Martens’ appeal to the custody ruling.
“If she genuinely loved those children and was remorseful for the brutal death of my brother it wouldn’t have gone this far,” he said.
However, while the public pronouncements on boths sides evidently pointed to proceedings fraught with ill feelings on both sides, it was not until court documents from the custody battle were released that a full picture of the animosity that existed was revealed.
It would later emerge that, during the custody battle, Ms Lynch made a series of allegations against Ms Martens.
She described Ms Martens as unstable, and desperate for affection, punishing the children if they did not call her ‘mom’.
“There was regular conflict and Molly was very erratic in terms of she would lose control quite quickly and equally be very calm in a short period of time. It was very distressing. It was disconcerting,” Ms Lynch told the court.
It was also alleged that Ms Martens would drink margaritas when minding the children, and when driving. These claims were denied by Ms Martens during the custody hearing, and again by her family when the court papers were later released to the media.
The children will be central to the case — as will the judge’s decision as to what statements made by Jack and Sarah, if any, the jury will be allowed to hear.
Unlike here in Ireland, the Superior Court of Davidson County in North Carolina has released to the media documentation on the pre-trial motions filed by both sides — all of which give some insight into the arguments both the defence and prosecution will put to the jury. Both sides have sought to block the jury from hearing different interviews Mr Corbett’s children gave following his death.
First, the defence for the Martens claimed that a video statement by Jack that was recorded on May 27, 2016, “is hearsay, was obtained under coercive circumstances, and is not sufficiently trustworthy to be admissible”.
In documents filed with the court, the defence argued that the video statement “attempts to contradict prior statements” during which the Corbett children described “incidents of verbal and physical abuse by Jason Corbett inflicted upon Molly Corbett.”
In the days following their father’s death, both children were interviewed by Social Services officials, and specialists at a children’s advocacy centre called the Dragonfly House, with detectives observing the interviews behind a two-way mirrored glass wall.
The documents submitted by the defence said: “Sarah reported that: her dad started fights with her mom for ridiculous reasons; he would hurt her mom; he would scream at her mom every day and sometimes twice a day; he would call her mom names on a daily basis; he would call her mom a lot on the phone; she saw her dad step on her mom’s foot, pull her mom’s hair, roll over her mom’s foot with the car, hit her mom in the face and call her mom names like “worthless”.
It further claimed: “Jack reported that: his dad would physically and verbally abuse his mom; he would punch, hit and push her; he saw her [sic] dad push her [sic] mom down one time because he wanted to look through her phone; his dad would cuss and scream at her; his mom would cry and try to block her ears; his dad’s anger was worse over the past few months, he would scream, get mad and cuss more, he was getting angrier; his mom would try to get him to stop but his dad was strong; his mom would scream for him to stop but sometimes she would just ball up under the covers and block her ears.”
In the same documents, the defence claimed that the state subsequently procured the video interview with Jack Corbett which was conducted in Mrs Lynch’s Limerick home, “under coercive circumstances without any of the safeguards to ensure trustworthiness or reliability”.
In a subsequent motion, the Martens’ defence was successful in its bid to secure copies of the notes made by the specialist pediatrician who saw the children at the Dragonfly House.
In granting the subpoena seeking the records, the court also ordered Mr Corbett’s cardiologist to release his medical records to the defence attorneys.
Ms Martens’ attorney said they believed the records may contain information that will be favourable for her defence case.
Dr Evelyn Amy Suttle of the Dragonfly House was instructed to produce all “medical records, reports, notes, forms, or other documents generated” relating to the medical examinations of Jack and Sarah Corbett during their time at the children’s advocacy centre.
A pre-trial hearing was held last month, at which the judge deferred his ruling on what, if any, statements made by the children will be admissible as evidence. Crucially, this hearing was told that Jack Corbett said he lied about witnessing any domestic abuse inflicted on Ms Martens by his father.
“He said he felt really bad about it. He said he wanted to tell the police he lied,” Ms Lynch told the hearing last month.
The Martens will plead self-defence, and it is clear from the pre-trial motions they have submitted to date that their defence strategy is to characterise Mr Corbett as an abusive man who died following his father-in-law’s intervention in a row the deceased had with his wife.
Prosecutors will tell another story however — one of a woman motivated by money and an account of events that doesn’t add up.
Investigating officers submitted their own documents to the court, statements that claim the evidence at the scene of death were not consistent with the fight described by the Martens.
Neither Ms Martens nor her father suffered any injuries during the alleged struggle, according to an application for a search warrant made by Detective BM Smith.
“Throughout my law enforcement career, I have been in several, of what would be described as “uncontrolled fights”.
“In my opinion; the struggle described was not consistent with the evidence at the scene, particularly the master bedroom,” Det Smith wrote in the application.
In the documents, investigators outlined how Mr Martens and his wife changed their plans to visit Mr Corbett’s home the day before his death — something that was considered ‘unusual’ for Mr Martens.
The Martens stayed in the basement guestroom of the Corbett home on the night Mr Corbett died.
Giving his account, Mr Martens said he went to investigate a disturbance in the house while his wife stayed in the basement. He said that he was in possession of a baseball bat because he had brought it to the house with the intention of giving it to Mr Corbett’s son as a gift. Mr Martens said he arrived to find Mr Corbett choking his daughter.
The accused also said a concrete paving brick was used to strike Mr Corbett.
The provenance of the baseball bat could prove to be a crucial aspect of the forthcoming trial.
While Mr Martens said he had it with him as a gift, the police have put forward a conflicting account.
Court documents reveal Mr Corbett’s son had told a counsellor that Mr Martens had already gifted him a baseball bat the previous summer. Investigators also said that they have viewed pictures of the young boy playing with the bat, which had been shared on social media.
“I have probable cause to believe that the baseball bat used to assault Jason Paul Corbett may have come from the sports equipment bag used by Jack Corbett and stored in the garage,” Detective Lt WS Thompson wrote.
Aside from doubting the Martens’ versions of events on the night, the prosecution will also claim that Mr Corbett planned to move his children back to Ireland, that there were marital difficulties between Mr Corbett and Ms Martens, that financial considerations were at play — and that all of this had a factor in the Limerickman’s death.
Mr Corbett’s friends, co-workers, and family told the police that he had been planning a trip home to Ireland. It was also alleged he discussed transferring large sums of money from a US bank to a bank in Ireland.
“The Ireland trip was allegedly for the purpose of moving him and his minor children back to his native homeland permanently,” Detective Lt WS Thompson wrote in another search
Investigators also said Mr Corbett “had expressed intentions of not inviting his wife, Molly Corbett, to join them on the trip [back to Ireland] and that him and the children were not going to return to the United States”.
It is the detail in these search warrants — and their release to the media — that featured heavily in last month’s defence application to have the trial moved from Davidson County to another jurisdiction. The Martens’ attempt to have their trial moved to another court is based upon claims that media attention and other
issues have denied them the right to a fair trial.
Court papers show the Martens’ legal counsel argued the trial should be moved to another location “on the grounds that a substantial prejudice exists against the defendants in Davidson County such that they cannot obtain a fair and impartial trial”.
The lawyers argued the media both in North Carolina and in Ireland have published “initial inaccurate and misleading allegations” in the police search warrants which were released by the court.
It was also claimed that the clerk of Davidson County made improper contact with Mr Corbett’s family in Ireland on the issue of his estate and the guardianship proceedings over Mr Corbett’s two children.
They further alleged that Davidson County’s Sheriff’s Office — who investigated Mr Corbett’s death — “have developed an inordinately close relationship to the family of Mr Corbett and the Irish media.”
The documents allege that “the family of Mr Corbett has undertaken an extensive social media campaign to sway public opinion against the defendant,” which “has included direct threats to the defendant and her family as well as Facebook and website postings critical of the defendant.”
The Martens’ legal team also claimed the pre-trial publicity, including the custody battle over Mr Corbett’s children, among local media and the “word of mouth” in Davidson County would prejudice the trial.
The State of North Carolina however, called on the court to deny the motion.
In its response, the state described the arguments as ‘irrelevant and unpersuasive’, claiming that its rejection of details set out in the warrant applications filed to the court merely ‘sets forth the defence’s version of the facts’.
After the two-day pre-trial hearing last month, Judge David Lee denied the motion to move the trial to the city of Mocksville in a neighbouring county.
“The defence has failed to find existing community prejudice that they can’t
receive a fair trial,” Judge Lee said. “There is no showing of prejudice in the investigation or proceedings... to preclude selection of an impartial jury.”
Somewhat ironically, given the amount of transparency in the pre-trial process, Judge Lee has ruled that there will be no cameras in his courtroom for the trial.
His decision was announced on Friday, when it was also revealed that the Martens have filed a late motion that, if successful, would prevent the prosecution from making any remark about Jason Corbett being a non-violent person.
While the prosecution will be first to make its case, the motion seeks that they be prohibited from submitting “claims that Jason Corbett was a non-violent, peaceful person and/or that Jason Corbett had a reputation for peacefulness”.
Molly and Thomas Martens stand accused of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. They deny the charges.
Today at 2.30pm Irish time, the process of picking a jury will begin in Courtroom C of the Davidson County Courthouse.
After two years of animosity, the countdown to a verdict will begin.
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