From top: Jason Corbett and Molly Martens on their wedding day in 2011; Grace Garvey
Reading the reaction to the news that Molly Martens and her father, Tom, have had their convictions for the murder of Jason Corbett overturned and are now considering a plea bargain, I was reminded of a heated discussion I once had.
It was 1988 and I was in London for the summer, working in Harrods, a shop so labyrinthine I sometimes got lost on the way to the loo. It was the tail end of an era when the odd old Etonian would choose Trinity College Dublin as an alternative to Oxbridge, which is how I ended up in Soho one evening having dinner with a college friend and his Tory dad. The father was chatty and, somehow, conversation turned to the Birmingham Six. At that point, the six Irish men were 13 years into a life sentence for the IRA Birmingham pub bombings of 1974. I had read enough about the case to be persuaded of their innocence and didn’t mind saying so.
The father was appalled, and railed against the cost of keeping the six at Her Majesty’s pleasure. The gallows was too good for them, he fumed. He was entrenched in his position and no amount of reasoning on my part could move him. He couldn’t countenance the fact that their convictions were unsound; in hindsight, they were simply too ‘other’ and he couldn’t relate. Coming from a place where the anomalies of the case were dispassionately discussed, this was an eye-opener for me.
Similar intransigence surrounds the Martens case, it seems. For those unfamiliar with it, Limerick man, Jason Corbett, was found beaten to death in his home in North Carolina in 2015. His American wife, Molly Martens, and her father, ex-FBI agent Tom Martens, were convicted of his murder two years later.
In February 2020, their convictions were quashed and a retrial ordered, partly because evidence that Jason may have abused Molly, which would have bolstered their self-defence claim, was excluded from the trial. The state appealed, but three weeks ago, the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld the judgment. A retrial was expected to take place sometime next year, but having since been offered a manslaughter plea bargain, this might not go ahead.
Judging by comments on social media, this case has created a dichotomy of us and them. Largely, the Irish contingent feels the Martens should rot in jail, while the Americans are open to the idea that justice has not been done.
The general public first heard of the case when Marian Finucane interviewed Jason’s brother, John, two weeks after the killing. He spoke of getting the awful call at work and the battle for custody of Jason’s children that ensued. Jason’s first wife had died of an asthma attack and Molly had cared for them since 2008, first as an au pair in Limerick and subsequently as their stepmother in the US. John surmised that Molly, a suspect by then, wanted custody of the children to gain control over Jason’s estate. He gave a glimpse of the horror that had engulfed his family, and listeners responded with sympathy, wishing the children a safe return home.
In February 2020, the North Carolina Court of Appeals found that both Martens had grounds for a new trial. The ruling said:
‘All of the evidence supports that Jason was the initial aggressor in the affray, and the first person who used deadly force.’
Mike Earnest, Molly’s uncle, said the result came as a surprise only to those who read news reports in Ireland. He claimed many Irish media organisations had published ‘fiction’ about the case, which is why so many were surprised at the appeal’ success.
One such bone of contention was the widely reported fact that Jason was planning to leave Molly to return to Ireland with the children for good. According to Jason’s sister, Tracey Corbett Lynch – who got custody of the children – this was the crux of the dispute.
The Martens family contend this is not true. According to Mike Earnest, no evidence was presented at trial to support this. He said:
“The sheriff and district attorney issued subpoenas and search warrants to try to find any email, text, internet search, anything that would have corroborated this – and they came up empty-handed.”
At the very least, he believes Jason would have been discussing such a move with his employer, but no such evidence was found. he added:
“This is yet another example of fiction being presented as fact in an effort to paint Tom and Molly with a conspiratorial brush.”
In August 2017, Tom Martens’ sister, Mona Earnest, set up a crowd funding campaign to pay for the appeals. She received ‘an unbelievable amount’ of hate mail from Ireland but got several donations too. One of these came from a journalist who said she believed the pair had acted in self-defence, noting what she described as a tendency in the Irish media to take the side of men who abuse their wives. ‘We have had several murder-suicides in this country and the newspapers focused on “what drove nice, respectable pillar-of-the-community so-and-so to do it?” rather than on the fact that it should not have happened,’ she wrote. ‘Irish editors are biased in favour of the Corbett family,’ she added.
The problem with claims of domestic abuse is that abusers tend to be shape shifters and notoriously difficult to pin down. Tom Martens claims Jason dictated what his wife would wear and what she could buy; he would text her repeatedly, demand to see her phone and look at her computer history, all signs of coercive control if true. The Corbetts point to Molly’s loose relationship with the truth and her secret recording devices stashed about the house. Jason had packed up his life and moved to the US at Molly’s behest. Was that her way of isolating him from family and friends?
Although Molly had been de facto mother to the children for most of their lives and wished to adopt them, Jason wouldn’t agree to it. Was he trying to maintain the upper hand, or had he genuine concerns? Molly had invented a younger sister who had died, a fabrication that would give most people pause for thought. In a recent interview with Elle magazine, she says she hasn’t necessarily lied more than the average person, but that everything she’s ever said and done has come to light.
Jason’s children, then aged 8 and 10, were interviewed by social services in the days following his death and both described incidents of domestic abuse – punching, hitting and hair-pulling – in the home. Jack later recanted his statement, saying he had been coached by Molly to lie. For this reason, their evidence was not presented at the trial, but the Martens maintain the later statement given in Limerick, where the children now live with their aunt, was given ‘under coercive circumstances without any of the safeguards to ensure trustworthiness or reliability’.
One thing that can’t be denied is that deadly force was used that fateful night. Jason suffered at least a dozen blows to the head. Mike Earnest believes Tom Martens did what he was trained to do to eliminate the threat to his daughter’s life. But despite the alleged struggle, neither Tom nor Molly sustained a single mark.
At the heart of these tragic events are two families whose lives have been torn apart. Both insist on the integrity of their stance. If the Martens accept the plea bargain on offer, they’re likely to be released on bail before returning to prison to serve whatever remaining time is agreed. If they opt for retrial, the Corbetts will be forced to relive the trauma of Jason’s death.
While we might sympathise with one side or the other, tribalism has no place in due process. Everyone is entitled to a fair trial. Real cases are messy, and more nuanced than can ever be conveyed in a courtroom drama. All we can hope for is that justice is served.
Grace Garvey is a Communications and Content Marketing Strategist. Grace can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.