Opinion: CJ Opinion

High-profile murder case might offer clues about N.C. Supreme Court splits

Image from N.C. Judicial Branch website
Image from N.C. Judicial Branch website

If you’re looking for an issue that’s likely to divide the N.C. Supreme Court’s Democratic and Republican justices, one strong candidate has emerged this month. The partisan fault line could involve new trials for prison inmates convicted of violent crimes.

Of the 31 decisions the state’s highest court has issued so far this year, just two have pitted the four Democratic justices against the three Republicans. The first case involved a disagreement about the law surrounding termination of parental rights.

The second, in the March 12 ruling for State v. Corbett, focused on two convicted Davidson County murderers seeking new trials.

Molly Martens Corbett and her father, Thomas Michael Martens, were sentenced in 2017 to at least 20 years in prison. They had been convicted in a joint trial for the second-degree murder of Corbett’s husband, Jason, in August 2015. The bizarre death of Jason Corbett, an Irish-born businessman, attracted international attention.

No one disputes that the wife and father-in-law killed Jason during a fight in the Corbett couple’s bedroom. Martens admitted beating his son-in-law with a baseball bat. Molly Corbett admitted hitting Jason with a brick paver.

The issue that split state Supreme Court justices was whether the two defendants deserved a new trial. Affirming a split panel of the N.C. Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court’s four Democratic justices said yes. They agreed that the trial judge’s rulings blocked Corbett and Martens from making an argument that the killing stemmed from a legally justified case of self-defense.

“The trial court’s errors in excluding certain evidence deprived defendants of the full opportunity to put the jury in their position at the time they used deadly force,” wrote Justice Anita Earls. “In turn, this deprived the jury of evidence necessary to fairly determine whether Tom and Molly used deadly force at a moment when they were actually and reasonably fearful for their lives.”

Republican justices didn’t buy Earls’ argument.

In his first written dissent since joining the court, Justice Phil Berger Jr. represented his fellow Republicans. Berger outlined “three fundamental flaws” in Earls’ analysis.

First, the court’s majority “creates an argument for defendants.” Corbett and Martens objected to trial evidence involving blood stains on Martens’ boxer shorts. Prosecutors had argued that the stains resulted from “blunt force strikes to Jason’s head while he was on the ground.”

The defendants had not preserved their objections through the appropriate legal process, Berger wrote. The Supreme Court majority instead invented a way for the objection to move forward.

“The majority impermissibly creates an avenue for preservation that was not addressed, briefed, or argued,” Berger wrote. “The majority’s argument is a departure from our … jurisprudence and rests on questionable constitutional grounds.”

Berger offered another observation about the blood stains. “Defendants’ failure to object may have been a trial strategy,” he wrote. “Defendants may not have wanted to draw additional attention to the overwhelming amount of blood and blood-related evidence associated with Jason’s brutal death.”

“Whatever their reason, given the admission of other blood evidence showing that Jason was struck while close to or near the ground, defendants certainly were not prejudiced by the admission of the blood spatter testimony relating to defendant Martens’ boxer shorts.”

In addition to what he identified as a preservation problem, Berger accused Earls and the court’s majority of continually “reweighing” evidence in an inappropriate way. That’s the second fundamental flaw in the Supreme Court’s decision.

The third? When justices should have been looking for signs that the trial judge abused his discretion, the majority engaged instead in “de novo analysis.” That means taking a new look at the case without considering the trial court’s conclusions.

Berger pointed specifically to the original judge’s decision to exclude statements from the Corbetts’ children about possible abuse.

“It is important to acknowledge that the trial court could have admitted the children’s statements into evidence,” Berger wrote. “While reasonable minds can differ on the admissibility of this evidence, we cannot say that the trial court abused its discretion.”

“The majority’s de novo review does away with the fundamental safeguards that are available to all litigants when the primary decisional responsibility of the trial court is respected and maintained,” he added. “Our inquiry should be limited to whether the trial court’s decision to exclude the statements was ‘manifestly unsupported by reason.’ Based upon the record in this case, the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it excluded the children’s statements. …”

In contrast to Earls’ majority opinion, Berger focused attention on the killing’s details.

“The autopsy report stated that Jason died of blunt force trauma to the head,” Berger wrote. “Jason sustained ‘[e]xtensive skull fractures’ from ‘multiple blunt force impact sites of the head.’ According to the medical examiner, Jason’s injuries ‘included 10 different areas of impact on the head, at least two of which had features suggesting repeated blows indicating a minimum of 12 different blows to the head.’ … In addition, Jason had a broken nose and blunt force injuries to his torso, left hand, and legs.”

The dissenting justice summed up his argument. “The evidence against 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. Neither defendant has established the possibility of a different result. …Therefore, the decision of the trial court should be affirmed.”

The Supreme Court heard arguments in State v. Corbett on Jan. 11. The majority opinion and dissent emerged just two months later. That’s relatively quick work by the high court’s standards.

It would be unwise to read too much into the speed of the case’s resolution. But it doesn’t take much imagination to surmise that justices reached contrasting conclusions with little haggling or philosophical debate.

If so, one could predict that future cases with similar circumstances might generate further partisan splits. In that case, the court’s current 4-3 Democratic majority will make a significant difference.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.