Crime & Courts

NC group investigates claim in death of UNCC student Irina Yarmolenko

The N.C. Center on Actual Innocence is investigating a Gaston County man’s claim that he did not kill UNC Charlotte student Irina Yarmolenko, who died on the banks of the Catawba River in 2008.

Mark Carver, 46, was convicted in 2011 of first-degree murder. He has served 3 1/2 years of a life prison sentence. For much of that time, family, friends and even strangers mounted an Internet campaign to “Free Mark Carver.”

Attorneys with the Center on Actual Innocence believe Carver’s claim is credible, said Executive Director Christine Mumma. She would not say why but confirmed that the center is investigating.

The center oversees Innocence Projects at North Carolina law schools. Last year, it received 632 claims of innocence from N.C. inmates; 8 percent made it past an initial review; 2 percent were investigated. Because of its work, five men have been exonerated since 2007, including Willie Grimes of Hickory, who spent 24 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell scoffed at the suggestion that Carver might be innocent and said he would not cooperate with the investigation because the center has shown him no evidence.

“There are people that believe that Richard Nixon didn’t lie,” Bell said. “There are people who will swear Obama is the greatest president we have ever had. There are people who believe Neil Armstrong did not walk on the moon. There are people who say Mark Carver is innocent. He got a fair trial. Twelve jurors found him guilty. The N.C. Supreme Court upheld that conviction.”

Bell said he would advocate to get an inmate released from prison if he felt the person was wrongly convicted. About Carver, he said: “I have no problem with him spending the rest of his life in prison. He killed her.”

Yarmolenko, who went by “Ira,” was found strangled May 5, 2008, three days after she turned 20. Her body was lying on the ground beside her car at the bottom of a 75-foot embankment near the Catawba River. A bungee cord, a ribbon and the drawstring from her sweatshirt were wrapped around her neck.

DNA that matched Carver’s profile was discovered above the rear door on the driver’s side of the car. DNA matching his cousin’s was discovered on the inside of the front passenger’s door and armrest.

Both men said they were fishing a short distance away and denied seeing Yarmolenko. Prosecutors contended that Carver accurately told investigators how tall she was and said the only way he could have known was because he killed her. They speculated that Yarmolenko took a photo of something the men didn’t want photographed.

Detective W.D. Terry of the Mount Holly Police Department, who investigated the case, said he would cooperate with the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence “as much as I can that the law will allow me to.” But he added, “I’m 100 percent sure that we got the right guy.”

Yarmolenko’s family could not be reached.

The center is a nonprofit and is not part of the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission, a state agency with statutory authority to conduct independent investigations. Mumma, who runs the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, helped push for a 2006 law that created the state commission because of limitations inmates faced in getting their cases reviewed.

Based on the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission’s work, a judge recently freed two brothers from Robeson County who served 30 years in prison in the case of an 11-year-old who was raped and murdered. Four other people have also been exonerated through the commission’s efforts.

Her last hours alive

Yarmolenko was born in the Ukraine, grew up in Chapel Hill and enrolled at UNCC in 2006. Prosecutors said she was working on a photography project and wanted to take pictures of kayakers on the Catawba River. They theorized that’s why she was at the river.

Investigators pieced together some of her itinerary on her last day alive. They said she stopped by a credit union, dropped off donations at a Goodwill store and pulled into the Stowe Family YMCA parking lot in Mount Holly near the Catawba.

Less than two hours later, two people on personal watercraft discovered her body on the riverbank.

Carver and his cousin, Neal Cassada, were charged seven months after her death. Cassada died of a heart attack in 2010, a day before jury selection was to begin in his trial.

Carver was found guilty in March 2011. The fact that his DNA was on the car helped persuade jurors.

‘The case that haunts me’

The case attracted Internet attention and was featured in 2011 in a “Dateline NBC” show titled “Mystery on the Catawba.” One website was devoted to the theory – which police and Carver’s defense attorney discount – that Yarmolenko killed herself. With the Center on Actual Innocence now investigating, that website and others have been taken offline.

Carver’s defense attorney, Brent Ratchford of Gastonia, said there was no reason Carver and his cousin would kill Yarmolenko. Ratchford suspects they lied about not being at the car – not because they killed her, but because they were afraid to admit it.

If they were guilty, he asked, why would they continue fishing nearby?

“There is not an ounce of me that believes that Mark Carver killed her,” Ratchford said. “When you look at the evidence and talk to your client, most of the time you know where the truth lies. I know where the truth lies, and the jury got it wrong.”

Carver did not testify and Ratchford called no witnesses. Ratchford said he thought there was no need to present evidence because the prosecution’s case was weak. There were no eyewitnesses and only speculation about a possible motive.

The N.C. Court of Appeals upheld the verdict in a split decision that turned on the reliability of Carver’s DNA. Investigators used a relatively new technique for analyzing DNA gathered from skin cells. Testing for so-called “touch” DNA is not as accurate as blood or saliva DNA testing.

A dissenting judge argued that the majority opinion relied too heavily on touch DNA to place Carver at the crime scene. None of his DNA was found on Yarmolenko’s body or the ligatures around her neck.

The N.C. Supreme Court upheld the 2-1 ruling.

Asked if he felt responsible for Carver’s conviction, Ratchford choked up. “Absolutely,” he said. “In 17 years, this is the case that haunts me.”

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