In November 2006, 29-year-old Jason Young and his 26-year-old wife Michelle lived in a suburban home outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. They had a 2-year-old daughter named Cassidy. Michelle was five months pregnant with their second child. It was not…
On the morning of November 3, 2006 Jason was out of town. The previous night he had checked into a Hampton Inn in Huntsville, Virginia 169 miles from Raleigh. At nine that morning, he left a voicemail for Michelle's younger sister, Meredith Fisher. Jason asked Meredith to stop by his house and retrieve some papers for him. (I presume he told Meredith he had called home and didn't get an answer.)
Later that morning, Meredith Fisher entered the Young house on Jason's behalf. When she climbed the stairs to the second floor, she was shocked by the sight of bloody footprints. In the master bedroom she discovered her sister lying facedown in a pool of blood. The victim, wearing a white sweatshirt and black sweatpants, had been bludgeoned to death beyond recognition. Meredith found Cassidy hiding under the covers of her parents' bed. She had not been harmed, but her socks were saturated in her mother's blood. Meredith Fisher called 911.
According to the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy, the assailant had struck Michelle Young at least thirty times in the head. The attacker had tried to kill the victim by manual strangulation before beating her to death. The extent of the head wounds suggested an attack by an enraged, out-of-control killer who hated the victim.
The authorities, from the beginning, suspected that Jason Young had snuck back to North Carolina from Virginia, murdered his wife, then returned to the Hampton Inn. The killer had not forced his way into the house, nothing had been taken, and the little girl's life had been spared. At the time of the murder, Jason was having an affair with one of his wife's friends. The couple had been fighting, and Jason had made no secret of the fact he wanted out of the marriage.
From a prosecutor's point of view, there were serious holes in the Jason Young case. The suspect had an alibi 169 miles from the murder scene, and there was no physical evidence linking him to the carnage. Moreover, no one had seen him at the house on the night of the murder. Even worse, investigators had not identified the murder weapon. As a result of these prosecutorial weaknesses, the Wake County District Attorney's Office did not charge Jason with the murder of his wife.
Michelle Young's parents were convinced that Jason had murdered their daughter. When it became apparent that the authorities were not taking action, they filed a wrongful death suit against him. In March 2009, two years and four months after the homicide, the civil court jury, applying a standard of proof that is less demanding than a criminal trial's proof beyond a reasonable doubt, found the defendant responsible for Michelle's brutal killing. The jurors awarded the plaintiffs $15.5 in damages.
Eight months after the civil court verdict, a Wake County prosecutor, based on a three-year homicide investigation conducted by the City-County Bureau of Investigation, charged Jason Young with first-degree murder. Police officers, on the afternoon of December 15, 2009, arrested Young after pulling over his car in Brevard, a town in southwest North Carolina. The local magistrate denied him bail.
The Jason Young murder case went to trial in Raleigh in June 2011. The prosecutor, following his opening statement in which he alleged that the defendant had drugged his daughter that night with adult-strength Tylenol and a prescription sedative, put on an entirely circumstantial case that relied heavily on motive.
The defense attorney hammered home the fact the prosecution could not place the defendant at the scene of the murder. The state did not have a confession, an eyewitness, or even the murder weapon. Jason took the stand on his own behalf and told the jurors that when his wife was murdered, he was sleeping in a hotel 169 miles away. He said he had loved his wife and their unborn child.
On Monday morning, June 27, 2011, the foreman of the jury of seven men and five women told the judge that the jurors were "immovably hung" on the verdict. "We currently sit," he said, "at a six to six ration and do not appear to be able to make any further movement. Where do we go from here?"
The trial judge instructed the jurors to return to the jury room and try to reach a verdict. But later in the day, after deliberating a total of twelve hours, the foreman announced that they were deadlocked in an eight to four vote in favor of acquittal. The judge declared a mistrial.
The Wake County District Attorney, determined to bring Jason Young to justice, announced that he would try him again. Jason, who had been incarcerated in the Wake County Jail since his arrest in December 2009, went on trial for the second time on February 10, 2012.
The prosecutor, in his opening statement, alleged that the defendant had checked into the Hillsville Hampton Inn just before eleven on the night of November 2, 2006. An hour later he left the building through an emergency exit he had propped open with a rock to avoid using his computer card key to re-enter the hotel. According to the prosecutor, the defendant arrived at his Birchleaf Drive home at around three in the morning. Shortly after his arrival, he drugged his daughter and murdered his wife. After cleaning up and disposing of his bloody shirt, shoes, and trousers, and ditching or cleaning off the murder weapon, he returned to the hotel, arriving there around seven in the morning.
Following the testimony of the victim's sister, Meredith Fisher, and the testimony of several other prosecution witnesses, a Hampton Inn hotel clerk took the stand. According to this witness, he had found the emergency door on the first-floor stairwell propped open with a rock, He also noticed that in the same stairwell, someone had unplugged the security camera and turned its lens toward the ceiling.
One of the City-County Bureau of Investigation crime scene officers testified that it appeared that someone had moved the victim's body to get into the defendant's closet. The detective said that despite all of the blood on the upstairs floor, certain items such as the sink drain had been sanitized by the killer. The investigator said he did find traces of blood on the knob to the door leading from the house to the garage. This witness had been present when, on the day after the murder, the suspect's body was checked for signs of trauma related to the killing. No injuries were found.
A second detective testified that the dark shirt the defendant was seen wearing on hotel surveillance video footage was not in the suitcase he had used on that trip. The implication was that the defendant had disposed of the bloody garment.
Included among the prosecution witnesses who took the stand over the next two weeks were two daycare employees who said they had seen Cassidy Young acting out her mother's beating. The girl was using a doll to demonstrate the attack. A therapist took the stand and testified that a week before her death, the victim had come to her seeking counseling to cope with her unhappy marriage. In the therapist's opinion, Michelle Young had been verbally abused by her husband.
Jason Young's mother and father took the stand for the defense. On November 3, 2006 Jason had driven from the Hampton Inn in Virginia to his parents's home in Brevard, North Carolina. His mother testified that when they broke the news to him that Michelle had been murdered, "you saw the color just drain from his face."
On February 29, 2012 the defense rested its case without calling Jason to the stand. (The defense attorney was probably worried that the prosecutor, having studied Jason's direct testimony from the first trial, would rip him apart on cross-examination.)
The prosecutor, in his closing argument to the jury, said, "This woman wasn't just murdered, she suffered a beating the likes of which we seldom see. This woman was punished. The assailant struck her over thirty times with a weapon of some sort, and she was undoubtedly unconscious after the second or third blow."
The defense attorney pointed out the weaknesses in the prosecution's case, talked about reasonable doubt, and reminded the jury that being a bad husband did not make his client a murderer.
On March 5, 2012, after the jury of eight women and four men had deliberated eight hours, the judge, before a packed courtroom, read the verdict: guilty of first-degree murder. The 38-year-old defendant, after the judge announced the verdict, showed no emotion. Facing a mandatory life sentence without the chance of parole, Jason Young was escorted out of the room in handcuffs.
Following the trial, several of the jurors spoke to reporters. Two members of the jury said that the lack of physical evidence in the case pointed more to the defendant's guilt than his innocence. For example, what happened to the shirt and shoes he was seen wearing on the hotel surveillance footage? A third juror found it incriminating that Cassidy had not been murdered, and possibly cleaned-up after the attack.
The prosecutor in the Jason Young murder trial, the second time around, turned a weakness--a lack of physical evidence--into a strength. In the era of the "CSI" television shows, advanced DNA technology, and high forensic expectations on the part of juries, this was an unusual case.