Jason Young appeared in court on Thursday for a hearing to discuss a motion for appropriate relief. The claim is that his trial attorneys — Brian Collins and Mike Klinkosum failed to do necessary legal research to counter prejudicial testimony the state planned to present at the second trial in March, 2012.
November 3, 2006 — Michelle Young found murdered in her home
December 15, 2009 — Jason Young arrested for murder of Michelle Young
June 2011 — Trial — Mistrial declared — Jurors voted 8: not guilty, 4: guilty
March 2012 — Trial 2 — State introduced inadmissible evidence per NC statute 1-149 — Conviction
April 1, 2014 — NC Court of Appeals grants Young a new trial due to the inadmissible evidence creating an unfair trial
August 21, 2015 — NC Supreme Court reverses CoA decision citing that his attorneys needed to properly object to the evidence citing the statute. They did not.
June 15, 2017 — MAR hearing for ineffective assistance of counsel
After the state was unable to secure a conviction in the first trial, they made a decision to solicit testimony about civil lawsuits filed against Jason by Michelle’s family. Statute 1-149 prohibits the inclusion of civil proceedings, specifically
No pleading can be used in a criminal prosecution against the party as proof of a fact admitted or alleged in it.
Young’s trial attorneys knew the state was planning to introduce the evidence. A simple legal search would have shown that the evidence was inadmissible per the above statute, but they failed to conduct research, and simply objected based on rule 403, which was not good enough according to the Supreme Court. They were required to object based on the specific 1-149 statute, according to the decision.
Why was the evidence damaging?
Before Jason’s arrest, his attorney advised him not to respond to the wrongful death and child custody suits because he would have had to submit to a deposition and psychological evaluation — essentially removing his 5th amendment right to remain silent. Please refer to this article for more details about that. His failure to respond to the wrongful death suit allowed a judge to issue a default judgement — basically declaring a win for the plaintiffs. In this particular instance, the signing judge (Judge Stephens) was the same judge who presided over the murder trial. The default judgment declared Jason a Slayer as part of a Slayer statute and the plaintiffs were later awarded $15 million dollars by Judge Smith. The judges stated in the filings that based on the material included in the suit, they believed it was more likely than not that Jason was the killer.
One may think . . . Well, that sounds pretty convincing. Yes, but understand that Jason did not have the opportunity to defend himself against the claims because he didn’t respond. Even if he had, it’s unlikely he could have won, which was described in the article linked above. This is precisely why civil outcomes are not admissible in criminal cases. The burden of proof is much lower, and it would prejudice the jurors to hear that the accused was “found guilty” in a civil case. So, in the second trial, Judge Stephens allowed the state to introduce the civil testimony, but ruled
“that the fact that a wrongful death and declaratory judgement action had been filed and that defendant, the primary beneficiary under Ms. Young’s policy of life insurance, elected to be defaulted and in response to the wrongful death action and permitted by law for the Court to enter a judgement disqualifying him from benefiting from the death of Michelle Young may be a factor, that is, might be relevant to any number of matters that the jury has already heard and will hear and are considering, and so I do believe it’s relevant and I do believe that the probative value outweighs any prejudicial effect.”
The jury heard this testimony from the clerk of court, Lorrin Freeman (now District Attorney). They heard that the same judge who was seated at the bench declared Jason the Slayer, and they also heard that the plaintiff’s attorney and Detective Spivey believed Jason was guilty of the murder through testimony about the civil filings. How could one possibly expect the jury to find him innocent after hearing this?! Young’s attorneys failed to object based on 1-149.
At the recent MAR hearing, Jason’s attorney, Robert Trenkle made the argument that they not only should have objected based on 1-149, but there is another statute that applies — NC 15A-1222 — which “prohibits the trial judge from expressing any opinion in the presence of the jury on any question or fact to be decided by the jury.” Certainly the testimony about the declaration of Slayer by the trial judge should have been barred!
Note that 1-149 can permit inclusion of evidence from the civil matters as long as it’s not used as proof of a fact. During oral arguments before the NC Court of Appeal, the state suggested that they brought in the civil testimony to impeach Young’s alibi. They attempted to make the case that since Young refused to respond to the civil summons and disqualified himself from collecting the $4 million life insurance pay-out, that he must have had a strong need to avoid discussion of his alibi . . . that he wanted to wait until he learned the state’s evidence so that he could fully explain his alibi to the jury at his criminal trial. According to them, his failure to respond was the issue. If that’s their assertion, then only evidence describing his failure to respond should have been included in the second trial. That was not the case. Note that the state never stated at trial that they were introducing the civil matters for impeachment purposes, and how could they, since Young did not testify at the second trial? Nonetheless, they got away with it.
At the MAR hearing, Trenkle pointed out that even if civil suit testimony was used as the state asserted — for impeachment purposes, the testimony should have been limited to his failure to respond to the suits, and NOT about him being declared the Slayer and opinions through affidavits that he murdered his wife. This point is so strong, that I can’t imagine how Judge Ridgeway could possibly disagree. Plus it was clear that the civil testimony resulted in a conviction because without it, the jury voted 8 to 4 to acquit Jason.
The judge will need some time to review the materials before making a ruling. To me, the most disturbing part of this is the fact that the prosecution violated long established statutes to win a conviction in a case with very weak circumstantial evidence, at best. Did they not know about 1-149 either? Isn’t it common sense that that type of testimony would be forbidden? If they knew that and intentionally proceeded regardless, that is extremely unethical. This case has been going on for a long time now. Jason Young is in prison because those who should be trusted to conduct themselves ethically and professionally screwed up. It seems to be just a game to them. “Let’s see if we can get away with bringing in the civil matters!” Yep, good strategy. Well, it was in fact a good strategy because it worked, and Jason suffers the consequences, and the case remains unsolved.
For more details about the case that have never been shared with the public, please read Absence of Evidence.
This video provides highlights of the MAR testimony.