April 1, 2014

NC Appeals Court throws out Jason Young murder conviction, orders new trial

A three-judge N.C. Appeals Court panel ruled that Wake County prosecutors prevented Jason Young from getting a fair trial by introducing evidence about a wrongful death suit and legal challenge for custody of his daughter.

Jason Young, the medical software salesman accused of killing his pregnant wife inside their Wake County home eight years ago, has been through two protracted trials already.

On Tuesday, the N.C. Court of Appeals vacated the 2012 guilty verdict from the second trial and ordered a third trial.

The reason?

A three-judge panel ruled that evidence presented from two civil proceedings against Young had severely influenced his ability to get a fair trial.

Young, seven days shy of his 40th birthday, is incarcerated in Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville, serving the life sentence he received in March 2012.

The N.C. Attorney General’s office has weeks to decide whether to ask the N.C. Supreme Court to review the appeals court ruling – 58 pages that provide a summary of the trial evidence and address arguments posed before three appellate judges in a December 2013 hearing.

Michelle Young was 29 and pregnant when she was found on Nov. 3, 2006, severely beaten to death in the master bedroom of the Wake County home she shared with her husband and their toddler daughter.

Cassidy, the couple’s toddler daughter, wriggled out from the covers of the bed close to her mother’s body when Meredith Fisher, the victim’s sister, made the gruesome find.

Young has maintained that he did not kill his wife, that he was away on a business trip when the violence upended many lives.

Prosecutors contended at two trials – one in 2011 that ended in mistrial with a jury deadlocked 8-4 for acquittal – that Young was a cold-hearted killer who brutally and relentlessly beat his wife inside their home, leaving his daughter, just 2-1/2 at the time, alone with her mother’s battered body.

On March 5, 2012, a jury of eight men and four women found him guilty of first-degree murder, a crime that brought an automatic sentence of life in prison without possibility for parole.

Judge Donald Stephens, the chief resident Wake County Superior Court judge who presided over the criminal proceedings, also presided over civil lawsuits brought against Young before police arrested him and charged him with murder.

Those civil proceedings, a wrongful death suit and a custody battle brought by Young’s in-laws, were the underpinnings of the N.C. Appeals Court ruling released on Tuesday.

Young never responded to the civil proceedings. He would have had to sit for depositions by attorneys for his former mother-in-law and sister-in-law, who suspected he was involved in his wife’s violent death.

In 2008, Stephens ruled in the civil proceeding that Young was responsible for his wife’s death after he failed to respond to the claim – a default judgment that does not declare innocence or guilt.

At the second trial in 2012, prosecutors presented evidence about those proceedings.

Barbara S. Blackman, a North Carolina assistant appellate defender, argued at the state Court of Appeals in December that telling jurors about those proceedings made Young’s criminal trial an unfair one.

“If this type of evidence is admitted, for what will apparently be the first time in the country in a homicide prosecution, I think it’s simply going to open the door to the pursuit of civil litigation before indictment in order to manufacture evidence for a criminal trial,” Blackman argued in December at the appeals court hearing.

Cooper’s civil depositions used

The Michelle Young homicide occurred about a year and a half before another high-profile Wake County case – that of Nancy Cooper, a Cary mother of two found dead in July 2008 not far from the home she shared with her husband.

In that case, Wake County prosecutors used depositions from a custody challenge filed by the victim’s parents to bolster their claims that Brad Cooper, the victim’s husband, was responsible for the death.

Brad Cooper, who was convicted of murder on May 5, 2011, also awaits a new trial after the state Court of Appeals overturned the conviction in September and sent his case back to Wake County Superior Court.

In overturning Cooper’s conviction, the appeals court noted that a Google Maps search was the “sole physical evidence linking” him to the homicide. The appeals court said the trial judge’s decision not to allow Cooper’s computer experts to testify on the matter was a “key error that warranted a new trial.”

Cooper, unlike Young, had responded to the custody challenge against him and sat for a nearly seven-hour deposition in October 2008 that was videotaped and played for the jury at his 2011 murder trial.

Within weeks of the Cooper deposition, law enforcement officers brought murder charges in that case.

Young used a different strategy.

Young had declined to speak to investigators and only explained his actions at the time of Michelle Young’s 2006 death when he testified at his first trial in 2011, 1,693 days after her bludgeoned body was found in their home.

Mike Klinkosum, one of the defense attorneys who represented Young, declined to comment about the appeals court ruling, noting that it remains an open case. Bryan Collins, the chief public defender at the time who also represented Young in the first two trials, is now a Wake County Superior Court judge.

It was unclear Tuesday who Young’s defense team would be and whether he would seek a bail hearing anytime soon.

The three judges who ruled Tuesday rejected arguments made by the state attorney general’s office in December that evidence from the civil litigation was used properly by prosecutors to discredit Young’s testimony from the first trial.

Young testified during his first trial that he did not respond to the civil proceedings because he could not afford a lawyer at the time.

Young did not testify during the second trial.

Assistant Attorney General Dan O’Brien argued in December before the appellate judges that Wake County prosecutors had tried to show through the civil lawsuit evidence that Young, despite the prospect of losing custody of his young daughter, a child he adored, had a different motive for not responding to the civil suits.

“He chose to be silent when he had all his assets on the line – $4.2 million in life insurance benefits and custody of his daughter,” O’Brien argued in December.

Blackman, the appellate defender, countered that prosecutors were trying to unduly influence jurors deciding Young’s fate.

“Clearly, the thrust of all that the state was doing here was to establish to the jury that the allegation in the civil complaint was more likely true than not,” she said.

Blackman added: “It seems fundamentally unfair for the jury to be advised that a judgment has been entered declaring him the killer.”

That was the conclusion of the appeals court panel of Judges Robert N. Hunter Jr., Donna S. Stroud and Chris Dillon.

“This evidence also severely impacted Defendant’s ability to receive a fair trial,” the three concluded.

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