Crime & Courts

‘We have a killer walking among us.’ Mark Carver juror wishes he could reverse verdict

When Mark Carver was questioned as part of a murder investigation in 2008, a detective asked him how tall the victim was.

While asking the question, the detective held his hand out in front of his body, indicating someone shorter than him.

Carver stood up and made a gesture similar to the detective’s, holding his hand in front of his face.

In one of the most dramatic moments of Carver’s 2011 trial, the detective told jurors about that gesture, saying that Carver described UNC Charlotte student Ira Yarmolenko before claiming he’d never seen her.

Yarmolenko was found dead on the banks of the Catawba River, near where Carver had been fishing with his cousin. The cousin died of a heart attack just before trial, and Carver was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

This week, one member of Carver’s jury told the Observer that the video of the height gestures would have changed everything.

It wasn’t introduced during the trial, but it was shown in Gaston County court Tuesday, on the first day of a hearing that Carver’s defense team hopes will lead to a new trial or full exoneration.

The way that the detective described Carver’s gesture in 2011 was misleading, juror John Little of Dallas said.

The video shows Carver didn’t spontaneously describe the victim, Little said. Instead, he seems to copy the detective’s motions without being sure of what was going on.

Little said that until last month, he also didn’t know that Carver has a hard time understanding and processing questions, which adds context to the story of his interview with the detective.

The leader of Carver’s postconviction defense team, N.C. Center on Actual Innocence executive director Chris Mumma, presented evidence about Carver’s mental and physical disabilities in court this week.

Little said he drives across the Catawba River, near where Irmolenko’s body was found, every day. He’s thought about the trial plenty in the past eight years, but recently, he said he’s become convinced of Carver’s innocence.

Mumma sent letters to each juror earlier this year, asking them if they would be interested in talking about the case. Most jurors didn’t want to talk, Mumma said, but Little responded, and the defense team showed him the video.

Little ended up signing an affidavit confirming that if he had all the information he has now, he would not have convicted Carver. But the affidavit won’t be introduced during this week’s hearing, Mumma said, because case law prohibits it.

Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell did not respond to two requests for comment through his office.

Little said the lawyers also told him more about issues with the DNA in the case, which he was skeptical about during the trial.

“Myself and another lady, we were the holdouts,” he said, adding that some of his fellow jurors wanted to wrap up the process quickly with a guilty verdict.

And the jurors were sure that someone had killed Yarmolenko and it hadn’t been suicide, he said.

Carver’s been in prison for eight years, which made Little realize something terrible: “We have a killer walking among us.”

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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.