Mark Carver, who received a life sentence for murder in 2011, walked out of the Gaston County Jail on Tuesday afternoon.
“I’ve been waitin’,” he said.
His daughters met their dad at the jailhouse door and escorted him to a black Dodge pickup truck, which put him on his way to his first home-cooked meal in years. Maybe pork chops.
Carver has to wear an ankle monitor, and he has more days in court ahead, but he’s no longer a convicted man. He said some of the people he knew in prison were guilty, but some weren’t — and he had a message for them.
“Don’t give up,” he said. “Keep fighting.”
Carver and his lawyer, Chris Mumma of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, have been fighting the guilty verdict in Carver’s trial for years.
Carver insisted that he not only did he not kill Ira Yarmolenko, a UNC Charlotte student found strangled on the banks of the Catawba River in 2008, but that he never saw her and never went to the crime scene.
On June 5 — eight years, two months, and 16 days after Carver was sentenced to life in prison without parole — Superior Court Judge Christopher Bragg set aside his conviction.
Carver’s case and the strange circumstances surrounding Yarmolenko’s death on the banks of the Catawba River were the subject of “Death by the River,” a 2016 series from the Observer.
At a hearing in April, Mumma argued that Carver is innocent and that there were serious problems with the legal defense in his original trial.
Bragg agreed with the second part of that argument, citing ineffective assistance by counsel in his ruling. He ruled that there’s also newly discovered evidence related to DNA in the case.
The lawyers didn’t present any evidence in Carver’s defense at his trial, which is allowed. But lawyers are required to “fully and thoroughly investigate their case” before making that decision, Bragg wrote in his ruling. He determined that they didn’t do that.
The word “any” is repeatedly emphasized in bold, italicized and underlined in Bragg’s 11-page ruling. It says the defense lawyers failed to obtain any medical records. Failed to interview any family members about Carver’s abilities. Failed to do any psychological evaluation or testing. Failed to talk to his psychiatrist, who met with him the day of the murder.
Gaston County attorney Brent Ratchford led Carver’s defense team. He testified in April that he had no questions about Carver’s competence. Mumma presented evidence showing that Carver’s IQ is in the 60s or low 70s.
Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell said he plans to appeal Bragg’s ruling. If that appeal fails, Carver will have a new trial. In the long run, Mumma wants him to be pardoned.
Mumma told reporters she hopes the investigation into Yarmolenko’s death will begin again. She says whoever killed the young woman has escaped unpunished for more than a decade.