Man convicted of UNC Charlotte student’s murder waits to hear on new trial, exoneration

Mark Carver believes he’s been waiting for justice for seven years — ever since 2011, when he was convicted of the murder of a UNC Charlotte student.

On Friday, he walked out of a Gaston County courtroom to continue the wait.

It may take more than a month for Superior Court Judge Christopher Bragg to respond to a motion filed by Carver’s defense team. During a two-week hearing ending Friday, Carver’s lawyers asked Bragg to declare him innocent or at least grant him a new trial.

Gaston County prosecutors say Carver should stay in prison. He was sentenced to life for the 2008 murder of Ira Yarmolenko, a 20-year-old Chapel Hill High School graduate whose body was found on the banks of the Catawba River, near where Carver was fishing.

Yarmolenko had a ribbon, a drawstring and a bungee cord wrapped around her neck, launching a complex and controversial investigation.

Carver’s defenders have argued that he and his cousin Neal Cassada, who was also accused of the murder and died just before trial, had disabilities that would’ve prevented them from killing her.

Cassada had heart issues that limited his activity level. Carver’s carpal tunnel syndrome affected his grip strength, according to his lawyer Chris Mumma, executive director of the North Carolina Center for Actual Innocence.

And Mumma said Carver’s IQ — his scores on three tests have ranged from 61 to 73 — means he could not have committed the crime and left so few clues behind.

The 2011 defense

Evidence about Carver’s mental ability was not introduced at his 2011 trial. The lawyers who defended him at the time testified in court this week, saying Carver was able to answer their questions and seemed capable of understanding.

“His IQ test would have shown that he’s easily exploited,” Mumma said in her closing argument Friday. “When he’s told to guess at something, he will guess, and when he’s told to do something, he will do it.”

Mumma said that’s just one example of the ways Carver’s lawyers failed him and violated his Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel — something that prosecutors vigorously disputed in their own closing arguments Friday.

Assistant District Attorney Stephanie Hamlin, who prosecuted Carver in 2011, called the attack on her former opponents insulting and awful.

Hamlin said she was shocked to discover how hard the 2011 defense team worked, citing their success in lowering Carver’s bond as one example.

“No trial defense is perfect ... but (Carver’s lawyers) went above and beyond what is required by the Sixth Amendment,” she said.

Yarmolenko’s height and weight

Arguing alongside Hamlin, District Attorney Locke Bell said the old defense team had good reasons for not presenting evidence that, in Mumma’s view, would have helped Carver.

One video of Carver’s police interview showed a detective raising his hand to indicate height while he asked Carver how tall Yarmolenko was. Carver raised his own hand in response, and the detective later testified that Carver had described Yarmolenko despite saying he’d never seen her.

Mumma has argued he was just mimicking the gesture and was not trying to give an actual answer.

In his closing argument, Bell said the value of video clip would’ve been nullified by the rest of the interview. In the same conversation, Bell said, Carver talked about accidentally shooting his own son and shooting at his ex-wife’s house in the years before Yarmolenko’s death.

A full video of the detective interview would have also shown Carver estimating Yarmolenko’s weight out loud, Bell said. Mumma explained that he had teenage daughters about Yarmolenko’s size at the time.

Changes in DNA tests

Part of the controversy surrounding the case comes from how quickly DNA testing has evolved in recent years. Samples were taken from the crime scene and tested before Carver’s trial.

The state crime lab determined that one sample, from Yarmolenko’s car, could have come from Carver — but Mumma argued that better testing procedures were already available at that point, and the state crime lab should have upgraded to the most modern standard.

Hamlin said if Carver could have DNA evidence retested because new methods are available, then everyone in prison will join him.

“That’s not new evidence — that’s just science progressing,” she said. “New evidence would be a new test result, something actually exonerating him.”

Mumma apologized to Yarmolenko’s family at the end of her closing argument, saying she’s only fighting the conviction because she knows Carver is innocent.

Bell said Yarmolenko’s family has had to relive the horror of her murder because of the hearing this month.

“There was finality, and now there’s not finality,” he said outside the courtroom.

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Jane Wester is a Charlotte native and has been covering criminal justice and public safety for The Charlotte Observer since May 2017.