NC Appeals Court hears arguments in Jason Young's bid to vacate his murder conviction

ablythe@newsobserver.comDecember 12, 2013 

— Jason Young, a medical software salesman convicted in 2012 of bludgeoning his pregnant wife, waited 1,693 days to give a public account of his movements the hours before and after her death.

He did not respond to a wrongful death suit filed against him in civil court in 2008, almost two years after his wife was found dead in their home.

Nor did he respond to a legal challenge for custody of his daughter.

On Thursday, Barbara S. Blackman, a North Carolina assistant appellate defender, argued at the state Court of Appeals that Young’s murder conviction should be vacated and a new trial ordered, in part because of testimony about his actions related to those legal matters.

In February 2012, when Young went on trial a second time accused of murder in the 2006 death of his wife, Michelle Young, Wake County Superior Court Judge Don Stephens allowed evidence about the custody and wrongful death cases.

Stephens, who presided over the criminal and civil proceedings, had declared Young responsible for his wife’s death after he failed to respond to the civil claim in 2008 – a default judgment that does not declare innocence or guilt.

Blackman argued that state law prohibits introduction of such evidence. She contended that it was unfair to allow jurors to hear about the civil proceedings in a largely circumstantial case that had resulted in a hung jury at the first trial.

“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 said.

Young maintained that he was away on business when his wife was bludgeoned to death in the master bedroom of their Wake County home. The couple’s daughter, a toddler at the time, wriggled out from under the covers of the bed in the master bedroom while her mother lay lifeless on the floor.

Though Michelle Young died in November 2006, it was not until November 2009 that a Wake County grand jury handed up an indictment in the case.

Differing strategies

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, awaits a new trial after the state Court of Appeals overturned the conviction in September and ordered 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 employed a different strategy, and though law enforcement officers had long considered the medical software salesman a prime suspect in the death of his pregnant wife, it would be another year before a Wake County grand jury handed up indictments in that case.

Prosecutors’ arguments

Lawyers from the state Attorney General’s office argued on Thursday before a three-judge N.C. Court of Appeals panel that the conviction should be upheld, that testimony about the civil litigation was used to discredit Young, who took the stand in his defense at his first trial.

Young testified that he did not respond to the civil litigation because he could not afford a lawyer at the time. But Assistant Attorney General Dan O’Brien argued that Wake County prosecutors had hoped to show jurors that Young, despite the prospect of losing custody of his young daughter, a child he adored, had a different motive.

“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.

Blackman argued 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.”

Blackman also contended the court erred in allowing testimony about the behavior of the Youngs’ toddler daughter, Cassidy, in the days after her mother’s death. Attorneys for the state disagreed.

The three-judge panel could take weeks or months to rule on the new trial request.

Young, 39, is incarcerated at Alexander Correctional Institution, a Western North Carolina state prison facility in Taylorsville.

Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

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