Mark Carver, conviction overturned after 8 years

On Wednesday, June 5th, 2019 the Honorable Judge Christopher Bragg vacated the 2011 conviction of Mark Carver for the 2008 murder of Ira Yarmolenko in Gaston County, NC.  The court’s findings included that Mr. Carver’s attorneys failed to fully and thoroughly investigate the case before deciding whether or not to offer evidence at trial.  It cited trial counsel’s failure to conduct proper investigation of Mr. Carver’s physical and intellectual disabilities and failure to thoroughly investigate the key DNA evidence.  The court also found that scientific advances in DNA testing constituted new evidence regarding the testing, analysis and interpretation of DNA mixtures, and this new evidence made it “doubtful at best” that DNA at the scene could be tied to Mr. Carver. 

Mark Carver has claimed his innocence since the day of his first interview.  The NC Center on Actual Innocence’s investigation began in 2013 and included many interviews, DNA testing, and objective analysis of crime scene evidence and law enforcement reports.  We maintain that all of the evidence supports that Mark Carver is innocent of any involvement in the murder of Ira Yarmolenko and he was arrested and convicted based on false evidence.  “Although Mark and his family are relieved that he has been released, he is still subject to GPS monitoring and restrictive pretrial conditions, as well as the prospect of being retried, despite the complete discrediting of the State’s case against him,” said Center Executive Director Chris Mumma.  “We look forward to the swift dismissal of the charges so that Mark may begin to rebuild the life that has been taken from him by the State.”

Mark was released from prison on 6/11/19 with GPS monitoring. Watch Mark walk out of the Gaston County Jail and the subsequent interview with him and Chris Mumma.

Case Background

Mark Carver was convicted on March 21, 2011 for the murder of UNC-Charlotte student Irina Yarmolenko and sentenced to life in prison.  The victim’s body was found on an embankment of the Catawba River a hundred yards from the spot where Mr. Carver and his cousin, Neal Cassada, had been fishing.  Although there was no clear evidence of guilt, both men were charged with Ms. Yarmolenko’s murder.  Mr. Cassada died as a result of pre-existing heart problems the day before his trial.

On May 5, 2008, two jet skiers discovered Ms. Yarmolenko’s body on the ground next to her car, which was at the bottom of an embankment where it had become snagged on a stump at the river’s edge.  Three ligatures were around her neck, all of which came from within her vehicle.

Mr. Carver was approached by an officer while fishing about 100 yards downriver.  He informed the officer that he had not seen or heard anything and that Mr. Cassada had been there earlier that day.

 

Mark fishing on the river

The Forensics

Mr. Carver and Mr. Cassada voluntarily provided their DNA and fingerprints to law enforcement. The State Crime Lab found that:

(1) A partial DNA profile obtained from above the driver’s side rear door of Ms. Yarmolenko’s vehicle was consistent with a DNA mixture, meaning more than one profile was present, and the predominant DNA profile matched Mr. Carver.

(2) Mr. Carver’s DNA could not be excluded from the partial DNA profile obtained from the seat belt button of the passenger side back seat.

(3) Swabs from the front passenger door armrest and the interior side front passenger door glass revealed profiles consistent with a mixture.  The predominant DNA profile from those locations matched Mr. Cassada.

Mr. Carver and Mr. Cassada’s DNA were excluded from all other evidence collected at the crime scene, including the ligatures used to murder Ms. Yarmolenko.  On December 12, 2008, Mr. Carver and Mr. Cassada were arrested for the murder of Ms. Yarmolenko.  Despite their arrests, DNA from ten alternate suspects was tested and a Crime Stoppers advertisement continued to run.  Some of the testing of alternate suspects even occurred after trial dates had been set in the case.

The Trial

Image credit ABC

Mr. Carver’s attorneys did not present any evidence at trial, relying entirely on cross-examination of the State’s expert witnesses to defend him.  They did not seek input from medical experts who would have testified that Mark’s obvious physical and mental disabilities made it impossible for him to have committed this crime. Had they consulted with an experienced forensic scientist, they would have learned that in April 2010, almost a year before the trial, the Scientific Working Group on DNA Analysis Methods published updated guidelines for interpretation and reporting of DNA mixtures. Using these guidelines, none of the evidence presented at trial would have been reported as “matching” Mr. Carver.

Center Involvement

The Center began investigating Mr. Carver’s case in 2013.  Based on DNA evidence, as well as the identification of a number of other investigative flaws, on December 8, 2016, the Center filed a Motion for Appropriate Relief on behalf of Mr. Carver. An evidentiary hearing was conducted in Gaston County Courthouse April 2 – 12, 2019 before Judge Christopher Bragg. On June 5, 2019 Judge Bragg vacated Mr. Carver’s conviction based on ineffective assistance of counsel and newly discovered evidence. Mark was released with GPS monitoring on June 11, 2019.

In overturning Mr. Carver’s conviction the judge’s ruling cited counsel’s failure to conduct proper investigation of Mr. Carver’s physical and intellectual disabilities and failure to thoroughly investigate the key DNA evidence. The court also found that scientific advances in DNA testing constituted new evidence regarding the testing, analysis and interpretation of DNA mixtures, and this new evidence made it “doubtful at best” that DNA at the scene could be tied to Mr. Carver.

Despite the clear evidence of innocence, instead of focusing its attention on identifying the true perpetrator, the State appealed the trial judge’s dismissal to the Court of Appeals.  That Court unanimously denied the appeal in April 2021, but that still wasn’t enough for the State. The Attorney General’s Office went on to petition the NC Supreme Court for review of the Court of Appeal’s decision and the Center and, more importantly, Mark Carver and his family, await that decision. Given the fight the Attorney General has waged to try and keep an obviously innocent man incarcerated, the Center wonders whether the real motivation is to protect itself from public knowledge that the NC State Lab’s delayed adoption of national standards for the analysis of DNA mixtures put the reliability of other convictions at risk.  

Mark Carver’s Case in the Media

Court Junkie Podcast: Ineffective Assistance of Counsel (Mark Carver) 11/4/19

Family Still Waiting for Mark Carver to be “Truly Free” 9/6/19

With his Murder Conviction Overturned, Mark Carver walks out of Gaston County Jail 6/11/19

Man’s Conviction Overturned in Murder of UNCC Student near Catawba River 6/5/19

Malpractice in America’s Crime Labs Is Putting Innocents in Jail, Letting Convicts Off the Hook

The Charlotte Observer: 7 part series – Death by the River

ABC 20/20 – The Mark Carver CaseFull episode is in multiple parts, linked below the video.

 Documents

Mark Carver – Supreme Court Order Denying PDR – 11/1/2021

Mark Carver – Defendant’s Response to PDR – 5/24/2021

Mark Carver – State’s Petition for Discretionary Review – 5/10/2021

Mark Carver – Court of Appeals Opinion Dismissing State’s Appeal – 4/20/2021

Mark Carver – State’s Reply Brief – August 2020

Mark Carver – State’s Response to PWC – August 2020

Mark Carver – State’s Response to Motion to Dismiss Appeal – August 2020

Mark Carver – Petition for Writ of Certiorari – July 2020

Mark Carver – Motion to Dismiss State’s Appeal – July 2020

Mark Carver – Defendant-Appellee’s Brief – July 2020

Mark Carver – State’s Brief – 1/24/2020

Mark Carver – Order Granting Motion for Appropriate Relief – 6/10/2019

Mark Carver – Amended Motion for Appropriate Relief – 7/20/2018

Mark Carver – Motion for Appropriate Relief – 12/8/2016