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Lawyer requests new trial for Mark Carver, who’s serving life sentence for killing UNCC student

The fisherman’s defense: revisiting the Yarmolenko case

Ira Yarmolenko, a 20-year-old UNC Charlotte student, is strangled on the banks of the Catawba River. Mark Carver is convicted of her murder. Five years after the trial, questions about the case linger.
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Ira Yarmolenko, a 20-year-old UNC Charlotte student, is strangled on the banks of the Catawba River. Mark Carver is convicted of her murder. Five years after the trial, questions about the case linger.

A lawyer who contends that Mark Carver played no role in killing UNC Charlotte student Ira Yarmolenko is asking for a new trial, arguing that his previous attorneys did not effectively represent him.

After the prosecution made its case in Carver’s 2011 trial, the defense called no witnesses and presented no evidence. Carver, now 48, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

In a six-part series called “Death by the River,” The Charlotte Observer raised questions about Carver’s guilt and mapped out the defense that he never got.

In a motion filed Thursday, a lawyer for the N.C. Center for Actual Innocence asked that the state dismiss all charges against Carver. Defense attorneys failed to offer key evidence that would have shown he was not guilty of the crime, the filing said.

The motion, filed by center executive director Chris Mumma, also argues that despite Carver’s “obvious intellectual disabilities,” his attorneys didn’t have him evaluated and left a decision about whether to present evidence at trial up to him.

On May 5, 2008, Yarmolenko was found dead in Mount Holly, on the banks of the Catawba River. The 20-year-old woman was lying beside her car with three bindings around her neck - a drawstring from her hoodie, a bungee cord and a blue ribbon.

Seven months later, police arrested Carver and Neal Cassada, two Gaston County men who were fishing near Yarmolenko the day she died.

Carver insists he didn’t kill Yarmolenko – and that he didn’t even see her or her car. He says he voluntarily spoke with police and allowed his cheeks to be swabbed for DNA testing. He repeatedly offered to take a polygraph, but was never given one. He was offered a deal to plead guilty to second-degree murder, which would have carried a prison sentence of eight to 14 years – but he turned it down.

Trace amounts of “touch DNA” were found on Yarmolenko’s car that match both Carver and Cassada. The two men were then charged with first-degree murder.

Cassada died of a heart attack the day before his trial was set to begin.

The Observer’s series, published in April, presented “the defense Carver never got” – including:

▪ A witness who talked to Carver about family and fishing after Yarmolenko’s body was found and who said Carver wasn’t wet, agitated, muddy or bloody.

▪ Some of the most damning testimony against Carver was misleading.

▪ Potential weaknesses in the touch DNA evidence that a forensic expert might have challenged. Investigators found none of Carver’s or Cassada’s fingerprints on Yarmolenkos’s car, none of their DNA on the bindings around her neck or on scrapings taken from beneath her fingernails.

“Every day when I get up, I think about what I’m doing here, how I got here, because I’m no murderer,” Carver told the Observer in an interview in March at Mountain View Correctional Institution in Spruce Pine March.

In her court motion, Mumma said Carver’s physical limitations made him physically incapable of committing murder “in the manner in which this one was perpetrated.” Doctors said he suffered from tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome that were so severe he couldn’t hold a pen without dropping it.

Mumma also raised questions about the law enforcement investigation and about the processing of the crime scene. Photographs show that officers touched Yarmolenko’s car without gloves, the motion says. And investigators did not interview or request DNA samples from people who were nearby when the body was found.

Defense attorneys also failed to take key steps, such as talking to the people who discovered the body, the motion argues. The defense relied solely on cross examination and “failed to adequately investigate the facts and circumstances surrounding the crime,” the motion states.

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