Attorney Steve Epstein had no direct connection to the Jason Young murder trial.
He didn’t know Jason or Jason’s murdered wife, Michelle Fisher Young, or their families, and he wasn’t part of any of the legal teams connected to the case. He doesn’t even practice criminal law.
But that didn’t stop him from diving deep into the tragic and sordid story of 29-year-old Michelle’s 2006 murder in her North Raleigh home and into Jason’s two murder trials. Epstein has written a page-turner of a true crime book — “Murder on Birchleaf Drive” — set to be released on June 1.
Many living in the Triangle at the time of Michelle’s murder recall the major points of the case: pregnant Michelle was found beaten to death in her home and her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Cassidy, had been left there, tracking her mother’s blood all over the house. Jason was on a business trip in Virginia at the time, but police and prosecutors argued that he drove to southwest Virginia, checked into his hotel, disabled security cameras and a security door to sneak out a hotel door, made the 169-mile drive back to Raleigh to kill his wife, and then drove back to Virginia for a meeting.
A jury in Jason’s 2011 trial deadlocked 8-4 in favor of acquittal, but a second jury in 2012 found him guilty and he was sentenced to life in prison. In August 2017, a Wake County judge denied Young’s request for a third trial.
But Epstein’s book goes beyond the major plotlines that most people remember and reveals details about the troubled relationship of the couple, both N.C. State University alums who met after graduation, and the investigation into Michelle’s murder that casual observers of the case may not know. And it’s the rare true crime book not written by a journalist (or former journalist). For that reason, it offers a slightly different perspective: that of someone deeply familiar with courtrooms and the inner workings of the legal system.
“That’s my world, and that’s the language I speak,” said Epstein, who practices family law at Poyner Spruill in Raleigh. “A lot of things in my book are deductions, based on the fact that I’m a lawyer and I’ve been practicing nearly 30 years, and I know that a certain thing can only happen had something else caused it to happen.”
An example of his legal perspective in action comes in Chapter 16, when he writes about Jason Young’s cross-examination by Wake County assistant district attorney Becky Holt.
“I spent probably two pages on what he could have and should have been asked about and was not, and as I say, he was basically given a free pass,” said Epstein. “That was the most exciting chapter to write in the whole book. His testimony — both what actually happened and what didn’t happen.”
Epstein also takes time in the book to explain things like the difference between direct and circumstantial evidence and how jury deliberations work. “I’m trying to walk the reader through all that a little bit. Sure, a lot of readers will know that, but a lot of readers won’t.”
Why this case?
Epstein was interested in the case at the time it was happening, but didn’t immerse himself. Still, he says he felt a connection with Michelle, even though the two never knew each other.
“I noticed some things that were very similar to my life’s path,” Epstein said in an interview in his Raleigh office. “Her migration from high school in Long Island, like me, down to North Carolina to go to college; her acclimating herself to North Carolina and a university where most of the students were from North Carolina, as I had to do; her meeting a life partner who was reared here in the South, as I did; and all of the culture clashes, including parents and in-laws and things like that that came with it — it resonated with me, forgetting about just the murder part.”
After reading a news article about Jason Young being denied a third trial in 2017, Epstein’s interest in the case was sparked again, so he set himself to a mountain of research: more than 8,000 pages of court transcripts for both trials and more than 100 hours of trial videos on the WRAL website.
And importantly, he started telling people he was going to write a book.
“I did that to set myself up so that I wouldn’t back out,” Epstein said. “So that I would continue to challenge myself and do it. Not once did I waver.”
The result is more than 350 pages of story encompassing much more than just the trial. There are sometimes scandalous details about Jason’s party boy lifestyle, the family dynamic between the Youngs and Fishers, the strained relationship between Jason and Michelle and Jason’s affairs (including one with Michelle’s sorority sister).
The cover of the book even features a quote by attorney David Rudolf, famous for defending Michael Peterson, whose trial for the murder of his wife, Kathleen, was depicted in the Netflix series “The Staircase.”
“One of the best true crime books I have read,” Rudolf wrote.
At the end of the process, Epstein is confident that he presents the tragic story of Michelle and Jason Young fairly and objectively, and he believes the case is a positive example of the justice system at work.
“I came to this thinking all of these lawyers honorably tried to do their jobs the best they could, and let the adversary system do what it’s supposed to do,” Epstein said. “And I come to the conclusion at the very end of the book: I think it did that very well.”
“Murder on Birchleaf Drive” (Black Lyon, $19.99 paperback; $7.95 ebook) is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and directly through Black Lyon Publishing.
For more information on the book — and for a comprehensive collection of links related to the case, including trial video and court documents — visit: murderonbirchleafdrive.com.