THERE’S AN OLD saying that the law should never be confused with justice.
But, after covering courts for 34 years from District Court to Supreme Court level and across four different countries, it’s a statement that I find myself having to disagree with. The law can get it wrong – sometimes painfully and excruciatingly wrong.
In some cases, victims families find the trial process as upsetting and traumatic as the crime inflicted on their loved one in the first place. But the law, whether it is in Ireland, the UK or the US, more often than not gets it right. Thereby it helps families of victims begin the healing process in the knowledge that someone has been held to account for the wrong inflicted.
Their loved ones, particularly those at the centre of homicide cases, can never be brought back – but their families can at least begin the healing process when those responsible are successfully held to account.
I witnessed this at first hand through the book ‘My Brother Jason’ which I co-wrote with Tracey Corbett Lynch, sister of Limerick father-of-two Jason Corbett (39).
Last August in the steamy heat of North Carolina, a jury of 12 ordinary US citizens found Mr Corbett’s second wife, Molly Martens (34) and her father, retired FBI agent Tom Martens (67), guilty of the second degree murder of Corbett, a packaging industry executive from Janesboro in Limerick.
They received sentences of 20-25 years – and the Corbett family began to slowly and painfully try to draw a line under a two year nightmare which had left two adored children orphaned. The double conviction was despite acres of pre-trial commentary on the fact that, under North Carolina law, any verdict had to be unanimous.
Only two US states allow for a judicial verdict common in Ireland and the UK where one or two jurors can disagree with their colleagues and yet a majority verdict of 11-1 or 10-2 can be reached.
North Carolina is not one of those two states. Any conviction must be unanimous amongst all 12 jurors. If just one juror disagrees, no verdict can be delivered. The other concern was what regard those very same jurors would have for Tom Martens, a retired FBI officer and counter-intelligence officer with the US Department of Energy.
North Carolina is a state famed for its respect not only for the military but for law enforcement. Would that respect for an institution as highly regarded in the US as the FBI prevent a verdict? Would jurors believe the evidence as presented or rather the claims of a former FBI agent?
Ultimately, North Carolina jurors proved as diligent, shrewd and compassionate as those in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, Australia and New Zealand. In a case which hinged on forensic submissions, the jurors sought out the truth out in the circumstantial evidence.
Jason Corbett suffered an horrific assault with a brick and a metal baseball bat in the early hours of August 2 2015 in his luxury Panther Creek Court home.
The forensic evidence indicated he was most likely asleep and helpless in bed when he was attacked – and traces of a sedative prescribed to his wife just days earlier was found in his system. His skull was so badly crushed a pathologist could only estimate the total number of blows he had sustained.
The prosecution cited paramedic evidence that Corbett’s body was cold when emergency services arrived at the scene – indicating he had been left to die in a pool of blood on the floor before his wife and father-in-law called for help.
When paramedics and police arrived, Molly and Tom Martens were totally uninjured despite their claims of acting in self-defence. The father and daughter hadn’t a cut, bruise or even an abrasion. This was despite Tom Martens claim that he was engaged in a life or death struggle with his younger and heavier Irish son-in-law.
Molly was wearing a delicate bracelet which wasn’t dented or damaged in any way despite her ordeal. But her husband was found blood-soaked in a bedroom where his blood was on the bed, walls, floor, fixtures and fittings.
Playing to stereotypes
When the brick used to attack him was lifted by forensic officers from the carpet, it left its outline on the carpet in Corbett’s blood. The brick was imbedded with Corbett’s blood, hair and tissue.
The father and daughter played to the infamous old stereotype of the Irishman – a drunken thug who liked to throw his weight around. But, crucially, the forensic or independent evidence that was offered all bolstered the prosecution case.
During his direct evidence, Tom Martens had to acknowledge that he had never witnessed or even heard about any abusive behaviour by Corbett towards his daughter. The main bone of contention was that Corbett would not allow Molly Martens to adopt his children by his late first wife, Margaret ‘Mags’ Fitzpatrick, amid concerns about her history of mental health problems.
His sister revealed that Mr Corbett was murdered just hours before he planned to fly back to Ireland with his children.
Legal system differences
In terms of a North Carolina verdict, there were also the differences in the legal systems. In Ireland, anything said in legal argument – in other words not in the presence of the jury – is strictly sacrosanct and cannot be reported until the trial is fully concluded.
In Davidson County Superior Court, whatever was said in legal argument was in the top news bulletins across North Carolina TV stations that same evening. Reporting on such details went against all the professional training of Irish journalists and led to more than a few sleepless nights of worry.
North Carolina law puts the onus on jurors rather than the media in terms of the reporting of such legal argument. If a juror complained about hearing or reading an element of the trial that involved legal argument, a judge would simply ask them what they were doing reading a newspaper or watching a TV bulletin when they were strictly warned to avoid them.
But US law provides for tough protections of the jurors during the trial process – any photograph or identification of a jury member by the media during the trial, even accidental, will be dealt with harshly both by fine and potential imprisonment.
US jurors are also issued large plastic tags which they wear around their necks during the trial process.
In Davidson County, it reached the point where paranoid Irish journalists would almost walk in the opposite direction when they spotted an approaching juror. I started eating my lunch in my car each day for fear of an innocent conversation with colleagues being inadvertently overheard in a restaurant by an unseen juror.
The other aspect of US justice is how prevalent firearms are in American life. During the intensive jury selection process – which took more than a week – it was truly shocking to hear how many ordinary North Carolinians had lost loved ones to violent crime.
Each day, everyone entered the courthouse through a metal detector – a measure to ensure no one can bring a gun into the courtroom. Every Davidson County Sheriff Department officer carried a 9mm sidearm.
Once, walking into court, I watched in amazement as an elderly man strolled by wearing a T shirt, shorts and a double holster with two Colt 45 revolvers – resembling a modern day Wyatt Earp on his way to buy coffee and bagels. But I was the only one to stop and stare.
When I mentioned it to an American colleague, they pointed out that North Carolina has the second biggest military presence in the US – and boasts one of the highest rates of National Rifle Association (NRA) membership in the entire country.
In five weeks in North Carolina, there wasn’t a single 48-hour period where local TV news stations didn’t report on fatal shootings in nearby cities like Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Raleigh and Durham.
‘My Brother Jason’ by Tracey Corbett Lynch and Ralph Riegel is published by Gill Books, priced €16.99.