NC Appeals Court hears Jason Young's bid for new trial
Posted December 12, 2013
Raleigh, N.C. — The conviction of a Raleigh man found guilty in the murder of his pregnant wife seven years ago went before the North Carolina Court of Appeals on Thursday with his attorney trying to convince a three-judge panel that he received an unfair trial.
Jason Young, 39, was convicted March 5, 2012, of first-degree murder in the beating death of Michelle Young, who was found in a pool of blood by the side of her bed on Nov. 3, 2006.
The appeal focuses on several decisions Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens made during the seven-week trial, including whether he should have allowed testimony and judgment about a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Michelle Young’s family and a custody dispute regarding the couple’s 2-year-old daughter, Cassidy.
In the wrongful death lawsuit, Stephens declared Young responsible for his wife's death after Young failed to respond to the civil claim – a default judgment that does not declare innocence or guilt.
Barbara Blackman, Young's appellate attorney, argued that the state turned to the civil cases, which she contended were inadmissible evidence, in an effort to win a conviction after Young's original trial in 2011 ended in a mistrial.
"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 going to open the door to the pursuit of civil litigation before indictment in order to manufacture evidence to use at a criminal trial," Blackman said.
But North Carolina Assistant Attorney General Dan O'Brien argued the civil litigation was used only to discredit Young's testimony from his first trial, which was the first time since his wife's death that he offered an alibi.
The state's aim, O'Brien said, was to show that if Jason Young had no involvement in Michelle Young’s death, he had more to gain – including custody of Cassidy – than to lose by giving depositions in the civil cases.
"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 said. "The inference is that he waited until the criminal case came around, and he got all the evidence that the state had against him. He knew exactly what he could say to try to fit his testimony into the state's evidence."
But Blackman said the civil matters, as well as Stephens' judgment, likely influenced jurors.
"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 and that the admission by default was more likely true than not," she said.
"It seems fundamentally unfair for the jury to be advised that a judgment has been entered declaring him the killer," she added. "We've got a verdict here we simply cannot have confidence in."
Blackman also argued that jurors should not have been permitted to hear testimony from a day care worker who said she watched Cassidy, six days after the crime, re-enact her mother’s attack using dolls.
Blackman said Stephens did not properly instruct jurors on how they could use the testimony in their deliberations. But Assistant Attorney General Amy Irene said the judge properly instructed jurors that the evidence could only be used to determine whether Cassidy witnessed part of her mother's assault – not as a means of identifying the killer.
Michelle Young, 29, who was five months’ pregnant, suffered at least 30 blows, mostly to her head, according to a medical examiner’s testimony,
Jason Young was arrested three years after the crime and has maintained he was away on business in Virginia at the time and that his wife’s killer has never been caught.
Defense attorneys argued there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime and that evidence at the home suggested someone other than Jason Young could have killed Michelle Young.
But the state argued that the couple's marriage was troubled and that Jason Young, pressured by the responsibilities of marriage and family, wanted out of the relationship.
The night before his wife's death, prosecutors said, he checked into a hotel just over the Virginia border and then drove back to his home and committed the crime before returning to Virginia to continue on with his trip.
Michelle Young’s sister, Meredith Fisher, discovered her sister's body more than nine hours later, as well as Cassidy, unharmed, hiding beneath the covers of her parents' bed.
"We just feel confident in the verdict that has been entered," she said after Thursday morning's hearing. "We feel confident in the justice system and (Wake County assistant district attorneys) Howard Cummings and Becky Holt and Judge Stephens' rulings and that the jury reached the right verdict."
Several of Jason Young's family members, who were also present Thursday, declined to comment, but Blackman did afterward.
"I think the court indicated that it's giving serious consideration to the issues raised," she said. "Obviously, it's going to be several months before we receive an opinion from the court."
Cummings said he's optimistic about the appellate ruling.
"I believe that the case against Jason Young was tried free from error, and our office and the Attorney General's office is confident that the Court of Appeals will affirm his conviction," he said.