An eight-year legal saga over the brutal death of Irish native Jason Corbett ended last week inside a spacious, pale-blue-painted courtroom in the small city of Lexington, North Carolina.
In the early morning hours of August 2, 2015, paramedics found his bludgeoned body inside the Davidson County home he shared with his wife, Molly, and his two young children from a previous marriage, Jack and Sarah. Six months later, Molly Corbett and her father, former FBI agent Thomas Martens, were charged with second-degree murder—a shocking turn of events that helped catapult the case to national and international headlines, including 20/20, 48 Hours and incessant coverage back in Ireland.
Prosecutors have argued that the two beat Jason with a baseball bat and a paving brick because Molly believed Jason was going to take the children away from her, and to benefit from his $600,000 life insurance policy. The defense claimed he was killed as an act of self-defense against an abusive spouse.
The pair were convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to a maximum of 25 years in prison in a 2017 trial. But the state appellate courts overturned that ruling, and sent the case back for a retrial. The judge moved the trial to Forsyth County due to heavy media coverage, where it was scheduled to start this month, and imposed a strict gag order on everyone involved. Yet, in a surprise move late last month, Molly Corbett, 40, and Thomas Martens, 73, accepted a plea deal for voluntary manslaughter.
The eight-day sentencing hearing concluded last Wednesday, with Superior Court Judge David Hall rejecting both the calls from defense for a probationary sentence and prosecutors’ request for a maximum sentence of nine years. Instead, he sentenced them to a minimum of about four years—and because they’ve already spent three and a half years in prison from their previous conviction, they’ll likely get out in just seven months.
On the right-hand side of the courtroom sat Jason’s friends and family, many of whom traveled from Ireland. They included his twin brother, Wayne, and sister Tracey Corbett-Lynch, who fought for and won custody of Jason’s children, who were only 10 and 8 when he died. She also filed a federal wrongful-death lawsuit against Molly Corbett, Thomas Martens, and his wife, Sharon, that was later settled. Jack, now 19, and Sarah, now 17, sat beside their aunt and uncle.
On the other side of the room sat the Martens, including Molly’s three brothers and uncle, as well as various friends.
They were mere feet away, but the gulf between them felt as wide as the Grand Canyon. On social media and in the Irish press, the two families had fought to maintain the moral high ground.
The Corbett family said Molly Corbett and Thomas Martens were cold-blooded murderers who deserved to be put away for life. Tracey Corbett-Lynch wrote a book, My Brother Jason: The Untold Story of Jason Corbett’s Life and Brutal Murder by Tom and Molly Martens, the title of which says it all: she believes the two plotted to murder her brother. She describes Molly as a conniving femme fatale who never loved Jason and manipulated everyone around her, including the children.
The Martens told a different story, one in which Molly Corbett and Thomas Martens were the victims who defended themselves against a violent, controlling man who abused Molly for years and had threatened their lives that morning in August 2015.
The two sides may agree on just one undisputed truth: that Sarah and Jack were left orphans and forced to navigate the grief over their father’s violent death in public.
Jack told Judge Hall that he would never heal and that the “bright boy” he once was might forever be buried. Sarah said she and her brother are scarred; she can’t stand the sound of an ambulance or the voice of an American woman, because they remind her of her father and the woman who took him away.
“Can you imagine being eight years old in your first days at a new school, in a new country, your father has been killed by your stepmother, and everyone is looking at you, the new girl?” Sarah Corbett said at the sentencing hearing. “People avoided me in school. They still do. They whisper about me.”
To hear his family tell it, Margaret “Mags” Corbett was Jason’s soulmate. When she died in November 2006, he was crushed. The Irish medical examiner said the cause was an asthma attack; Jason, according to his family, had rushed her to the hospital and tried desperately to save her life that night.
Sarah was just 11 weeks old at the time.
Tracey Corbett-Lynch said in court that her brother went to Margaret’s grave multiple times a day, reading the newspaper to her and bringing flowers, cards, and notes. He told her how their children were doing.
In 2007, Jason hired Molly Martens, a 24-year-old native of Knoxville, Tennessee as an au pair to take care of Jack and Sarah. She moved to Ireland. Around 2008, the two began dating. Three years later, they married in Knoxville and moved to North Carolina, into a house in the Meadowlands, a golf community in Davidson County.
From the outside, Jason and Molly appeared happy. But five women who testified at the sentencing hearing said Molly Corbett bore the brunt of Jason’s rage. He berated her over the smallest things. His biggest pet peeve was being awakened in the middle of the night when she attended to one of the children, the women testified.
Five months before his death, Molly secretly recorded Jason yelling at her for giving Jack and Sarah dinner before he got home from work. Both children can be heard telling their parents not to fight. Molly also told a Davidson County investigative social worker that Jason would force her to have sex and try to suffocate her during the assault. But Molly refused to leave the marriage because she loved the children. She even sought to adopt the children officially, but Jason would not allow it, defense witnesses said.
Molly’s attorney, Douglas Kingsbery, said the abuse is what led to Jason’s death.
On August 1, 2015, Thomas Martens and Molly’s mother, Sharon, traveled to Davidson County to visit the family. When they got to the house just after 8:30 p.m., Jason had been drinking but seemed fine.
In the early hours of August 2, 2015, Thomas and Sharon were in bed in the basement guest room when they heard a commotion and what sounded like screaming. Thomas later told sheriff’s deputies that Molly had told him that Jason had emotionally abused her and he suspected some physical abuse, though Molly never told him about it.
Thomas said he grabbed a 28-inch Louisville Slugger that he planned to give to Jack as a gift and went upstairs. Thomas said when he opened the door to the master bedroom, he walked into his worst nightmare—Jason had his hands around his daughter’s throat. Thomas told Jason to let Molly go.
“I’m going to kill her,” Jason said repeatedly, according to Thomas. Then he switched positions and placed Molly in a chokehold, dragging her from the bedroom to the adjacent bathroom. Thomas hit Jason, but he wouldn’t go down, so Thomas hit him again. At some point, Molly escaped Jason’s grasp, grabbed the paving brick and struck Jason at least once.
Thomas told authorities that Jason had practiced martial arts and boxed. He called Jason “crazy” and feared Jason was going to kill them. Jason got the upper hand, knocking Thomas to the floor with such force that Thomas’ glasses fell off. Jason had the bat. Thomas said he grabbed the bat back and kept hitting Jason until he was on the ground.
Thomas told a 911 dispatcher he thought he might have killed Jason. When paramedics came, they found Molly kneeling beside her husband and performing CPR. They had to pull her away.
Blood spatter covered the walls of the bedroom and the bathroom. Jason had been beaten so badly that pieces of his skull fell out when paramedics tried to treat him in the ambulance. Molly and Thomas appeared relatively unscathed, though Molly rubbed at a redness around her left neck, what Kingsbery argued was a nail dig from Jason choking her.
Dr. Craig Nelson, a medical examiner, testified that Jason was struck in the head at least 12 times and died from multiple blunt-force trauma.
Members of the Corbett family groaned when defense witness Scott Hampton, a domestic-violence expert, testified to how terrified Thomas and Molly must have been when a prosecutor showed him crime-scene and autopsy photos of Jason Corbett. “Oh God,” someone on that side of the courtroom said aloud.
Corbett-Lynch walked out, with a crying Sarah Corbett, when Kingsbery presented evidence that Corbett’s first wife didn’t die from an asthma attack but was likely strangled to death —presumably by Jason. (Jason was never charged in his wife’s death, and medical experts on both sides only agreed that the Irish autopsy report wrongly concluded her death resulted from an asthma attack).
Corbett-Lynch and the children left the courtroom again when the defense attorneys gave their closing arguments.
Assistant District Attorney Alan Martin told the judge at one point that there is no consensus on any piece of evidence, including statements Jack and Sarah gave to social workers that they had seen their father abuse Molly. David Lee, the judge in the 2017 trial, excluded those statements as unreliable hearsay.
Lee’s decision to exclude those statements was part of the basis for overturning their convictions; the appellate courts concluded Lee’s rulings on the children’s statements and other evidentiary issues were prejudicial and prevented defense attorneys from mounting an effective self-defense claim.
At the sentencing hearing, Jack and Sarah said that Molly had coerced them into lying when they made those statements years ago. They both said they no longer loved Molly, who collapsed into tears while they spoke.
“Your honor, don’t be fooled by this mask of civility of Molly Martens,” said Jack. “There is a monster lurking underneath the exterior.”
But for the defense, Jason was the monster, and in a previous hearing, Kingsbery accused Corbett-Lynch of not only violating the gag order, but propagating false information in a second book she wrote about the case, released in October 2022, Loss and What It Taught Me About Living: A Memoir About Love, Grief, Hope and Healing. Kingsbery said the false information included Corbett-Lynch referring to her brother as a “great guy.”
Kingsbery referred to “Irish stakeholders” who had repeatedly violated the gag order, and said it frustrated him that he couldn’t respond publicly to alleged misinformation.
Hall issued another gag order, saying he had never seen “the breadth and depth of the coverage I’ve seen for reasons I do not understand.”
That includes a pre-trial interview Molly Corbett and Thomas Martens did in 2017 for 20/20, where Molly, for the first time, publicly outlined Jason’s alleged abusive behavior. She also talked about her abuse in a story for Elle magazine.
Much of the Irish media sided with the Corbetts. In many stories, Molly is referred to by her maiden name, and Molly and Thomas are called “killers.” Irish journalists have also covered Corbett-Lynch’s frustrations, including multiple delays in the case and her belief that they should have been charged with first-degree murder. And they have dug deep into Molly’s life before she married Jason, such as a previous troubled relationship, her alleged plot to divorce Jason and adopt the children before they even married, and her mental-health issues.
Prosecutors Alan Martin, Kaitlyn Jones, and Marissa Parker spent much of their time at the sentencing hearing outlining what Parker called Molly’s “long and complicated relationship with the truth.” In the plea agreement, defense attorneys agreed that if witnesses talked about Molly’s statements, prosecutors would be allowed to attack her credibility by mentioning her alleged false statements. That includes telling her bridesmaids that she had known Jason’s first wife, making statements to her book club that she gave birth to Sarah Corbett, lying about a sister who died of cancer, and displaying a fake picture of her sister as proof and telling people at her wedding that Sarah and Jack were her biological children.
At the hearing’s conclusion, Hall said he still didn’t have a clear idea of what happened on August 2, 2015.
“I do not know the truth,” he said. He wanted to know why a trained FBI agent wouldn’t call for backup, and why Sharon said she went back to sleep after hearing the commotion but later told authorities that she was concerned enough about abuse that she gave the children her phone number and a code to use to alert her to call police.
Hall said he couldn’t reconcile the gruesome crime scene and Jason’s bashed-in head with Molly and Thomas’ relatively unscathed appearance after what they described as a life-or-death struggle.
Thomas told Hall he had spent his life upholding the law and teaching others to do the same, but now realized he had broken it and was sorry. Both told Hall they had tried their best to avoid that deadly confrontation.
Then, it was over, and the families on both sides streamed out of the courtroom, emotionally drained, the pain still palpable. Minutes later, a Martens family supporter confronted Corbett-Lynch. A law enforcement officer escorted the woman away.
Corbett-Lynch, with Sarah and Jack by her side, and the rest of the family, walked quickly out of the courthouse, bypassing a half-dozen news cameras and got into a black SUV in the adjacent parking lot. She told one reporter that today was not a celebration. She would issue a longer statement, expressing dissatisfaction with the sentence. But she also said Jack and Sarah had finally, after eight years, had their say in a court of law and that the family could find a path forward.
For much of the American media, the saga had ended, with Molly and Thomas headed to prison with no chance to appeal. Over the last few days, the Irish media has been consumed with the aftermath, delving into numerous angles from the hearing and revisiting aspects of the case.
And while both families sought closure, they still might not get even that. The fascination with the case is far from over—a crew from London-based Sandpaper Films was in town to film a documentary.
Michael Hewlett is a staff reporter at The Assembly. He was previously the legal affairs reporter at the Winston-Salem Journal. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.