Death by the River

Death by the river: Is Mark Carver a cold-blooded killer? Or an innocent man?

Story so far: A jury finds Mark Carver guilty of killing Ira Yarmolenko. The judge sentences him to life in prison without parole.

When I first met Chris Mumma of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence a year ago, she had only recently begun her investigation into Mark Carver’s conviction and wouldn’t say whether she believed he is innocent.

Now she feels certain.

She believes Carver was fishing when Ira Yarmolenko died. She believes he had nothing to do with her death and that he told the truth when he said he did not touch her car. And, she believes “there is evidence that will definitively prove his innocence.”

Three weeks ago, she finally agreed to let me interview Carver.

We meet in the visitation room at Mountain View Correctional Institution in Spruce Pine and talk for two hours. I’m surprised by his appearance. He will be 48 in June. But, after five years in prison, he looks much older.

He walks with a cane now because of an aggravated childhood knee injury. His hair has receded, and he shaves what’s left close to his scalp. Large brown eyeglasses rest clumsily on his nose, and a scraggly beard covers his chin.

Every now and then, he rambles at length about fishing lures and ex-girlfriends and other topics that have nothing to do with his criminal case. I can see why his trial attorneys worried he would get confused on the witness stand. He is not sophisticated. He doesn’t understand nuance.

But some might see that as a strength. He gives straightforward answers, never evasive, no matter how personal or challenging the question.

I ask: “Did you kill Ira Yarmolenko?”

“No way in the world. Why would I want to hurt somebody? And I got kids her own age.”

“Did you touch her car?”

“I didn’t touch the car, so I don’t know how my DNA got on the car.”

Either Carver is lying as prosecutors claimed, or there’s a problem with the DNA.

“He’s telling the truth,” Mumma said. Her challenge: uncovering the evidence to prove it.

An innovative technique?

Carver’s conviction relied on an innovative forensic technique known as “touch DNA.”

In the past, investigators collected DNA from blood, semen or saliva – only if they could see it could they test it. Touch DNA consists of smaller amounts of DNA, for example, microscopic skin cells left behind when a person touches or comes into contact with something.

The technique gained widespread publicity in 2008 – the year Ira died – when touch DNA cleared JonBenet Ramsey’s family in the murder of the child beauty contestant. DNA from an unidentified male was found in cells lifted from her long johns.

But touch DNA is less reliable than DNA gathered by other methods.

In California, a man spent at least four months in prison because his DNA was found on a murder victim’s fingernails. He had an alibi – he was drunk and unconscious at a hospital at the time of the slaying.

Prosecutors discovered that the same paramedics who treated him for intoxication responded to the murder a few hours later. They presumably transferred traces of the drunken man’s DNA onto the dead man.

Which made me wonder: Could something similar have happened in Carver’s case?

On the morning Ira died, Carver was fishing about 100 yards downriver. He told me his cousin Neal Cassada met him there to pick up a salt block, and he helped Cassada transfer the block from his car to Cassada’s car. That afternoon, Carver said he handed his driver’s license and fishing license to an officer investigating Ira’s death.

Ten weeks later, a crime scene technician swabbed Ira’s car in 22 places for DNA.

A forensic scientist testified that cells lifted from a spot above the rear door on the driver’s side contained a mixture of partial DNA profiles from different people. The scientist concluded that the predominant profile was Carver’s, implying that he touched the car. In two other places, the predominant profile was Cassada’s.

The DNA evidence was central to Carver’s conviction.

Problems with touch DNA

There are growing concerns about how labs have interpreted, and continue to interpret, touch DNA mixtures.

You might think that, given the same data, scientists would reach the same conclusions about whose DNA contributed to a mixture. That’s too often not the case.

A 2005 study found that different technicians interpreted the same complex mixtures in vastly different ways. A national advisory group released new interpretation guidelines in 2010. But a second study in 2013 found that technicians still reached very different conclusions.

“The problem is in the interpretation of these complex profiles,” said Michael Coble, a forensic biologist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. “There has to be a lot of caution. When you only have part of the information (partial profiles), the risk is you may identify someone who could be in the mixture, but maybe they’re not.”

Which made me again wonder: Could that have happened in Carver’s case?

Carver insists he never touched the car. Mumma believes he never touched the car.

She hired two forensic scientists from different labs to independently analyze the DNA data. She wouldn’t reveal what they discovered except that two findings would be different if the new interpretation guidelines had been used at the time of Carver’s trial in 2011:

The first involves the DNA swabbed from the driver’s side. The probability that it was Carver’s DNA instead of some other unrelated Caucasian person’s DNA would be lower, Mumma said. If it is Carver’s DNA, she said, the fact that none of his DNA was found anywhere else makes it much more likely the DNA got there by secondary transfer.

The second finding involves DNA swabbed from the seat belt button on the passenger side back seat. At trial, the forensic scientist said Carver could not be excluded as a contributor to the mixture. Under the new guidelines, Mumma said, the result would be inconclusive, meaning that the testing did not produce information including or excluding Carver as the source.

More testing, she said, is needed.

Mumma said she will present her findings to Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell. “I want to give the prosecutor the opportunity to be part of doing the right thing.”

Should case be reviewed?

In Texas, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges are working together to review thousands of past convictions based on the outdated guidelines for interpreting touch DNA mixtures.

In Gaston County, Bell has ridiculed efforts to re-examine Carver’s case. Twice, in the fall of 2014, he told me he would not cooperate with Mumma by providing DNA data. He eventually relented at the request of Bill Stetzer, the prosecutor at Carver’s trial.

“There are people that believe that Richard Nixon didn’t lie,” Bell told me in 2014. “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.”

The case, he said, is over. “He’s a cold-blooded killer.”

Mumma will need Bell’s cooperation again for more testing. If he refuses, she could file a post-conviction motion asking a judge to order the testing.

Another option would be to ask for a new trial, which Mumma believes would be justified by significant gaps in Carver’s representation.

The legal process could take years.

‘I didn’t do it’

If Carver had accepted a plea deal prosecutors offered before his trial, he might have been out of prison by now. I ask why he refused.

“I wasn’t going to plead guilty to something I didn’t do,” he tells me.

He says he wants Ira Yarmolenko’s family to know he didn’t kill her. He says he can’t imagine anything like that happening to one of his children.

“I never seen her that day,” he says. “If I’d knowed she was up there, I would have went up there and helped her. They could have easily come down and killed me just like they did her.”

Mumma often feels angry about cases she investigates, of injustices done to people she believes are innocent. Carver’s case is different. His case makes her sad.

It’s obvious he doesn’t understand the legal complexities. He doesn’t realize how much work still needs to be done. To him, it’s a simple story. “I didn’t kill her. I didn’t touch her car.”

He’s already thinking about what he will do when he gets out of prison. “I want to go home with my family and get some money for a truck.”

During five years in prison, he has been cited for no infractions. He spends most of his time watching television. He says he tried to get his GED but gave up because he has a hard time learning. It’s been that way all his life. He has to ask other inmates to write letters for him.

He can’t take a prison job because he’s disabled. He rolls up his sleeves and shows me scars from surgery on the inside of both elbows and along one shoulder. Then he points to a photograph I brought of him casting for fish. He’s holding the rod with both hands. He says he’s not strong enough to cast with one hand.

“I lost my grip,” he explains. “I can’t hold stuff a long time. Like holding a plate, I have to be careful not to hold it too long or it will drop to the floor.”

I puzzle over the prosecution’s theory – that Carver, with his carpal tunnel syndrome, and Cassada, with a heart condition, attacked a vibrant, young college student, held her down and tied three bindings around her neck, then pushed her car down an embankment, dragged her body into the river and dragged her back ashore. And accomplished all that without leaving any DNA on her body or on the bindings around her neck, or any fingerprints.

Given the growing concern about touch DNA mixtures, did the jury know enough to reach its verdict? Would the outcome of the trial have been different if his lawyers had called witnesses and introduced evidence?

Mark Carver didn’t get a full defense five years ago. He deserves one now.

Leland: 704-358-5074

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If you have any information about Ira Yarmolenko's death, email eleland@charlotteobserver.com or call 704-358-5074.

Series credits

Reporter: Elizabeth Leland

Photos/video: Todd Sumlin

Editor: Gary Schwab

Print design: Eric Edwards

Copy editor: Sharon White

Online design: David Puckett

Online: Dave Enna, Tony Lone Fight, Dee Dee Strickland, Sergio Tovar

Research: Maria David

About the story

Elizabeth Leland interviewed investigators, lawyers, witnesses, medical experts and forensic scientists. She talked with members of Mark Carver’s, Neal Cassada’s and Ira Yarmolenko’s families – as well as some of Ira’s high school and college friends. Many people agreed to talk for background purposes only.

With photographer Todd Sumlin, Leland retraced Ira’s last steps by the Catawba River and interviewed Mark Carver at Mountain View Correctional Institution in Spruce Pine.

Additional information came from hundreds of pages of court documents, police reports, trial transcripts and forensic science articles, as well as from photographs of the death scene and evidence presented at trial. Researcher Maria David conducted online criminal record checks.

The prosecutors who tried the case declined to be interviewed. Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell answered questions a year ago but declined last month to talk about developments.

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