Crime & Courts

Man’s conviction overturned in murder of UNC Charlotte student near Catawba River

A judge ruled Wednesday that Mark Carver, who has been serving a life sentence for the 2008 murder of a UNC Charlotte student, did not have appropriate counsel during his 2011 trial.

The ruling overturns Carver’s conviction, but it did not send him home immediately, as some of his friends and family members hoped.

Once Superior Court Judge Christopher Bragg signs a formal order, Carver will be sent from state prison back to Gaston County jail, where he’ll have the opportunity to pay his bond and go on house arrest.

Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell said he plans to appeal the judge’s ruling. If that fails, Carver would have a new trial.

“I just want Mark home. It’s time for an innocent man to come home,” Carver’s lifelong friend Melanie Brafford told reporters outside the courtroom.

Carver was convicted of murder in 2011. He and his cousin Neal Cassada, who died before his trial, were accused of killing Chapel Hill High School graduate Ira Yarmolenko.

Yarmolenko was found dead on the banks of the Catawba River in 2008. Carver and Cassada had been fishing nearby. A ribbon, a bungee cord and a drawstring were all found wrapped around her neck.

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Carver’s conviction caught the attention of Chris Mumma, executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence.

During a hearing this spring, Mumma argued that Carver’s IQ was not high enough for him to fully understand his police interviews and the trial process. He cannot read, she has said, and he tends to agree with what he’s told even if he doesn’t understand it.

Carver took the witness stand for the first time at the hearing and described a combative and confusing questioning process.

Mumma suggested that Carver’s defense team should have introduced evidence about his IQ at his trial, but his former lead attorney Brent Ratchford testified during the hearing that he had no questions about Carver’s competency.

Bragg mentioned Ratchford by name in court Wednesday, saying he failed in his obligation to fully investigate the case.

Ratchford did not completely investigate Carver’s health status, including his intellectual ability and his history of wrist surgery, Bragg said.

The judge said Ratchford also fell short in his investigation of touch DNA evidence. That was important because it’s “the only evidence that directly links Mr. Carver to the crime scene,” Bragg said.

Ratchford did not respond to requests for comment from the Observer by email and phone.

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