Attorneys for convicted murderer Mark Carver say the case that led to his 2011 conviction for strangling a UNC Charlotte student already hung by its fingertips – and a disputed thread of DNA.
Based on a judge’s ruling Thursday, they say, that grip may have been loosened further.
Superior Court Judge David Lee ordered that DNA evidence collected in 2008 from the scene of Irina Yarmolenko’s killing – evidence that played a major role three years later in Carver’s first-degree murder conviction – undergo updated state lab analysis.
Lee, of Union County, issued his order at the request of Carver’s defense team. Chris Mumma and Cheryl Sullivan, both of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, are seeking a new trial for Carver, 48, a Gaston County man now serving a life sentence without parole.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
New, improved DNA testing methods had gone into effect before Carver’s original trial, the attorneys say. But they were not used at the time the evidence against Carver was analyzed or presented to the jury. Expert witnesses for the prosecution said only that Carver’s DNA was among those found on the door of Yarmolenko’s car, which was wedged down an embankment of the Catawba River near her body.
Mumma, executive director of the innocence center, said the actual DNA test results purportedly placing Carver at the murder scene were far less conclusive. She predicts that after new testing, prosecutors “will not be able to show that Mark Carver’s DNA was on that car.”
Another key piece of evidence – Carver’s statements to police that appear to indicate he knew how tall Yarmolenko was – is also under scrutiny. Mumma said interrogation video – video never shown to Carver’s jury – instead reveals that Carver, who according to court filings had a tested IQ of 61, was coached into describing the victim’s height by his questioner.
According to Mumma, that means the two most compelling pieces of evidence against her client will have been “fully discredited.”
Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell, who has long argued that Carver killed the UNCC student, did not return a phone call seeking comment after the hearing. In court, he told Lee that the new DNA testing would not disprove older methods that confirmed Carver’s DNA was found on Yarmolenko’s car.
The facts surrounding Yarmolenko’s death remain a matter of public debate nearly a decade after her body was found May 5, 2008, in Mount Holly, on the banks of the Catawba River. Around her neck: the drawstring of her hoodie, a bungee cord and a blue ribbon.
The body was spotted by passing jet skiers. Carver and his cousin Mark Cassada were arrested seven months later. Both had been fishing downstream from where Yarmolenko was found.
Cassada died the day before his murder trial. In 2011, Carver’s attorneys did not present a defense before the jury convicted him.
Last year, the Observer published “Death by the River,” a six-part series raising questions about Carver’s guilt.
In her motion for a new trial, Mumma claims that Carver’s trial attorneys botched his defense while detectives and the state crime labs mishandled or misrepresented key evidence.
For months, Mumma and Bell appear to have been bogged down in legal trench warfare over the sharing of evidence. In response to one of Mumma’s requests, which was read aloud in court, Bell asked Mumma to cite the piece of state law that compelled him “to do your research for you.”
In an interview earlier this week, Mumma described her dealings with Bell this way: “I would characterize it as uncooperative, and unwilling to consider that an injustice could have occurred.”
For his part, Bell asked Lee to order the defense to answer about 20 questions he had about Carver’s request for a new trial. He said Mumma’s latest arguments are based on evidence, witnesses or experts unknown to the prosecution.
Lee elicited promises from both sides that they would share their complete files before any hearing on a new trial takes place. The parties could be back in court as early as August.
In response to a defense request that five of the law enforcement officers who investigated the crime scene be compelled to submit DNA samples, Lee held off, saying he hoped the five would do so voluntarily. But he said he would consider an order if necessary.
“My only concern is: Does everybody have everything that’s out there?” the judge said.
More than a dozen of Carver’s relatives, several carrying hunting caps, another wearing a T-shirt from a local Masonic lodge, sat behind the defense table.
After the 90-minute hearing ended, they gathered around Mumma as she prepared to leave the courtroom. They asked her questions. Several gave her hugs. While Mumma and Sullivan met with reporters in the lobby, Bell disappeared through a back door in the courtroom moments after the hearing and did not reappear.
As Carver’s family and friends filed into fourth-floor elevators, a woman who said she was Carver’s sister-in law was asked if there was anything she wanted to say.
“We know he’s innocent,” she replied. “That’s all.”