Jason Young, the North Carolina man who was convicted in a televised second trial, has been granted a new trial. Young is currently serving life without parole for the 2006 murder of his pregnant wife, Michelle. In April of this year, the North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed the 2012 murder conviction of Young because the trial judge erred in allowing prejudicial information, which may have caused the jury to convict him. Michelle Young was murdered on November 3, 2006 when she was struck in the head with a blunt object about 30 times and strangled in bed. Their young daughter witnessed the attack.
The State is appealing.
Young’s first trial ended in June 2011 with a hung jury in favor of acquittal (8-4). The second trial occurred in early 2012, included the prejudicial evidence, resulted in a conviction and sentence of life without parole.
The Court of Appeals ruled that the fundamental issue with the trial was that Judge Donald Stephens allowed the jury to hear evidence about the civil wrongful death action filed by Michelle’s mother as the executor of her daughter’s estate against Young. It resulted in a default judgment because Young did not respond to the complaint. This occurred a year before any criminal charges were filed.
Jurors heard testimony that the civil complaint alleged “in the early morning hours of November 3, 2006, Jason Young brutally murdered Michelle Young at their residence.” This could have incorrectly swayed the jury to believe that since the civil court found Young liable then this statement was a fact. The county clerk told the jury that the legal effect is that Young is admitting the “facts” alleged by the plaintiff. In other words, the court sees Young as “guilty” of the civil complaint or his wife’s murder. Jurors also were allowed to hear evidence about a child custody battle between Michelle’s mother and Young in December of 2008. Young ultimately agreed to give up primary custody. If he had challenged the custody, then he would have had to undergo a psychological evaluation and deposition by the mother’s attorney, all of which could be used against him in the criminal trial, which hadn’t happened yet.
Young has always maintained his innocence and says that he was hours away in Virginia on a business trip. He had a meeting scheduled there later that same morning the murder occurred.
Using the civil complaint as evidence of a fact in dispute (i.e. innocence or guilt), the prosecution violated North Carolina law, ruled the Court of Appeals. The law states that “no civil pleading can be used in a criminal prosecution against the party as proof of a fact admitted or alleged in it.” The State unsuccessfully argued to the appeals court that they only introduced the complaint to impeach Young’s testimony. The court concluded that the State was using the complaint as proof of guilt, which it is not. The Court of Appeals also found that Judge Stephens abused his judicial discretion by allowing this information, which was in fact more prejudicial than probative.
“More prejudicial than probative” is a test used by courts to weigh the relevance of evidence. If something is probative it means that it reasonably makes a fact relevant to a legal issue (such as guilt) more or less likely. Prejudicial means that it will do more harm than good in a way unrelated to the actual issues in the case. If information or evidence is both prejudicial and probative, the court must decide if its probative value outweighs its prejudicial value. In other words, probative evidence seeks the truth and prejudicial evidence does not.
Judge Stephens did instruct the jury that the civil judgment was not a finding of guilt, but the Court of Appeals said that wasn’t enough caution.
The defense appealed on two other issues, but the court did not agree:
- The daycare worker’s testimony about statements his toddler daughter allegedly made in the days after the murder should have been inadmissible because they are hearsay. The State had argued that the young girl was a witness to the murder and the fact that she was left unharmed was probative to the identity of the murderer.
- Young not wanting to discuss his wife’s murder with his family and friends was used against him in the second trial. The first time he spoke about her murder was when he testified in his first trial in mid-2011. The defense unsuccessfully argued that his silence could not be used against him because it violated his constitutional rights. The court ruled that the protection against self-incrimination does not extend to non-police individuals like family and friends. The State is allowed to argue that Young’s silence toward those he knows “tends to reflect…a person possessed of a guilty conscience seeking to divert suspicion…”
North Carolina’s Attorney General is handling the appeal of the new trial ruling. The matter is pending and it could likely be months before another ruling.