North Carolina Supreme Court justices had lots of questions Tuesday for attorneys arguing for and against a third trial for Jason Young, the medical software salesman convicted of killing his pregnant wife.
At issue was whether prosecutors went too far when they introduced evidence about rulings in civil proceedings for which Young did not participate.
Young, 41, is imprisoned in Alexander Correctional Institute.
Three years ago, a jury found him guilty of murdering his wife Michelle, who was 29 and pregnant when she was found bloodied and lifeless in the bedroom of the couple’s Wake County home.
The verdict, in March 2012, came nine months after a first trial resulted in a hopelessly divided jury and a mistrial was declared.
Prosecutors, defense attorneys and family members were in the stately N.C. Supreme Court courtroom on Tuesday as Assistant Attorney General Dan O’Brien argued against a third trial and Barbara S. Blackman, an appellate defender, argued for relief from a verdict that she contended was built on unfair evidence introduced at the second trial.
Michelle Young was found on Nov. 3, 2006, severely beaten to death. 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, came across the scene.
Prosecutors contended at the two trials that Young was a cold-hearted killer who brutally and relentlessly beat his wife, leaving his daughter, just 2-1/2 at the time, alone with her mother’s battered body.
Young has maintained that he did not kill his wife, that he was away on a business trip when the violence upended many lives.
In the weeks, months and years after Michelle Young’s death, Jason Young declined to speak with investigators.
He also did not respond to a wrongful death suit and custody battle brought by his in-laws, civil proceedings that resulted in default rulings.
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.
Blackman, the assistant appellate defender, argued that allowing such evidence into criminal cases not only would have an impact on how prosecutors get and present evidence. She contended it would allow the civil justice system to be “used as a pawn.”
The N.C. Court of Appeals agreed in April 2014, in a unanimous three-judge ruling, that the Wake County prosecutors had prevented Young from getting a fair trial by introducing the evidence.
State prosecutors, dissatisfied with the ruling, asked the N.C. Supreme Court to review the case.
O’Brien, with the state attorney general’s office, argued that jurors were told not to consider testimony and evidence about the civil proceedings “toward the truth of the matter.” Instead, the jurors were instructed to consider why Young might not have responded to the proceedings.
Prosecutors, in closing arguments, contended the reason was that Young had killed his wife and did not want to respond to the legal questioning he would have to undergo for such proceedings to move forward.
Attorneys for Young said he did not respond because he planned to share custody of his daughter Cassidy with his in-laws anyway. Young, who testified in his defense during the first trial, testified that he did not have money then to pay lawyers to represent him.
Though the murder case was based largely on circumstantial evidence, O’Brien of the attorney general’s office told the justices on Tuesday that trial prosecutors had told jurors at the second trial about shoe prints found at the scene that matched the kind of shoes Young was seen wearing in a video that night. They were never recovered after the homicide.
O’Brien also mentioned that Michelle Young’s wedding ring was not recovered from the crime scene and said prosecutors had shown through testimony from two former girlfriends that “he had this obsession with rings.”
The justices did not indicate on Tuesday how they would rule. It could take weeks or months before they issue a decision.
Michelle Young’s mother and sister were at the hearing on Tuesday and left the courthouse offering few words other than to say Cassidy, now 11 and in the fifth grade, is “doing well, really well.”
Jason Young’s mother also was there, but did not comment.