Jeff Martinson Murder Case Hearing Next Week Will Have New Twist With Recent Appellate Court Decision

We wrote a recent cover story about the twisted case of former Ahwatukee resident Jeffrey Martinson, convicted late last year in the child-abuse murder of his 5-year-old son, Josh.

 Among other issues, the piece considered allegations of juror misconduct that led to an extended hearing in the courtroom of Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Sally Duncan at which the panel members were called in to testify under oath about the goings-on before and during deliberations.

Duncan set a hearing for this coming Monday, when defense attorneys and prosecutors are to summarize arguments for and against a new trial for Martinson, a 47-year-old who has been incarcerated at a county jail since 2004.

Martinson was convicted of "felony murder," in that the jury concluded that young Josh died while committing child abuse (allegedly giving the boy a Soma pill).

But the panel could not decide whether to impose a death sentence, with eight jurors voting for life behind bars, two for death, and two undecided.

As we wrote in the story, Judge Duncan has a lot on her legal plate.

And as if the issues already on the table in this tragic case weren't enough, a recent Arizona Court of Appeals decision may weigh heavily in her pending decisions.

The appellate court concluded in a unanimous March 8 opinion in the murder case of State vs. Sosnowicz that the trial judge erred in allowing the county medical examiner to tell jurors that the manner of death was "homicide," not accidental, a suicide, natural, or undetermined.

Jonathan Sosnowicz was convicted of second-degree murder and aggravated assault in the 2008 case and was sentenced to 30 1/2 years in prison. He was accused of running over four people with his Hummer in a parking lot after a verbal clash, killing one.

Sosnowicz's defense lawyer objected to the doctor's testimony, telling the judge that the doctor had rendered "a legal opinion--homicide. He does not know if it was an accident or homicide. How can he give that opinion?"

But Judge Maria Del Mar Verdin allowed Dr. William Spano to testify that he had reached his opinion about the cause and manner of the victim's death based on the autopsy and what police had told him about the incident.

The State of Arizona argued that Dr. Spano was speaking only from a medical perspective, "not in the context of whether Sosnowicz committed a criminal offense."

But the appellate court said it was "less concerned with his intended meaning than with the manner in which his testimony would be understood by a typical juror."

The panel concluded: "It does not apear that Dr. Stano relied on any specialized knowledge to classify the death as a homicide rather than an accident...Indeed, Dr. Spano was in no better position to determine the manner of death than was the jury who heard the actual trial testimony of witnesss and had the opportunity to evaluate their credibility."

Their opinion: "We conclude that the medical examiner's testimony was not admissible."

Despite that take, the court upheld Sosnowicz's conviction, claiming that the trial judge's ruling on Spano's testimony had been "harmless" (a specific legal term) in the big picture.

It's hard to imagine how Judge Duncan will be able to deem the critical testimony of Dr. John Hu as "harmless" in Martinson.

As we described in the above-attached story, medical examiner Hu also was allowed to testify that Josh had been the victim of a murder, simply on the basis of an apparently lethal dose of the Soma in the boy's gastric contents and from what he'd been told by Phoenix police.

Unlike in Sosnowicz, Hu was an absolutely pivotal witness for the prosecution.

After she read the appellate decision, Judge Duncan ordered lawyers for both sides to submit legal briefs and be prepared to argue the issue at the March 26 hearing.

We'll be there.