‘The murderer … is still out there’

The fisherman’s defense: revisiting the Yarmolenko case

Ira Yarmolenko, a 20-year-old UNC Charlotte student, is strangled on the banks of the Catawba River. Mark Carver is convicted of her murder. Five years after the trial, questions about the case linger.
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Ira Yarmolenko, a 20-year-old UNC Charlotte student, is strangled on the banks of the Catawba River. Mark Carver is convicted of her murder. Five years after the trial, questions about the case linger.

Moments before court convened, Mark Carver’s family gathered to pray, holding hands and locking arms, a chorus of “Amen” and “Lord hear us” echoing through the normally hushed hallway of the Gaston County courthouse.

With them was attorney Chris Mumma of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, who has made it her life’s mission to help exonerate people who are wrongly imprisoned. Over the past five years, she has advocated for Carver, convicted in 2011 of first degree murder in the death of UNC-Charlotte student Ira Yarmolenko. Within minutes, a judge would issue his ruling.

The anticipation was palpable.

I began investigating Carver’s case in 2014 and was surprised to discover that trial attorneys Brent Ratchford and David Phillips put up no defense on his behalf. We thought hard at the Charlotte Observer before pursuing the investigation because we knew the stories might add to the distress of Ira Yarmolenko’s family. She was, by many accounts, a vibrant, adventurous young woman with a boundless future.

But as I uncovered evidence in Carver’s favor, we felt obligated to tell the story. Working with editor Gary Schwab, I crafted a six-part series, “Death by the River: The fisherman’s defense.”

On Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Christopher Bragg began his ruling by saying that he did not have legal authority to declare Carver innocent. However, in strong and compelling language, he laid out reasons for setting aside Carver’s conviction on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel and newly discovered evidence.

He cited “a number of instances” where Ratchford failed to conduct any investigation, including:

Ratchford didn’t request medical records about carpal tunnel syndrome in Carver’s hands and how it might affect his ability to strangle a healthy, fit woman. Ratchford didn’t interview Carver’s family and friends about his physical limitations. Ratchford didn’t request a psychological evaluation despite receiving $4,000 from the N.C. Indigent Defense Services for that purpose. Ratchford didn’t interview Carver’s psychiatrist, who treated Carver on the very day that Yarmolenko’s body was found along the Catawba River. Ratchford also didn’t consider the relevance of Carver’s intellectual disability regarding statements Carver gave an investigator.

With an IQ between 61 and 73, Carver has such limited mental capacity that after Wednesday’s hearing ended, Mumma said he told her “I didn’t really understand” and asked “Was it good?”

But the most egregious failure, Bragg suggested, was that Ratchford didn’t investigate the only evidence linking Carver to the crime scene: Touch DNA found above the door of Yarmolenko’s car. Ratchford didn’t conduct any independent research about DNA, the judge found, or educate himself about the science.

At the time of Carver’s arrest in 2008, a state lab concluded it was 126 million times more likely the DNA came from Carver, who had been fishing nearby, than from any other Caucasian in the state. But new guidelines for analyzing DNA were issued a year before Carver’s 2011 trial. Under those guidelines, Bragg noted, the results would have been deemed inconclusive. There would have been no match with Carver.

Despite the evidence cited by the judge, prosecutor Locke Bell remained defiant. Bell told me in 2014 that Carver was “a cold-blooded killer.” On Wednesday, he disputed the judge’s findings and argued that the discredited DNA still proved Carver’s guilt.

Talking with reporters, Mumma issued a chilling rebuttal. Rather than appeal the ruling, she said, investigators should focus on finding the killer. “The murderer of Ira Yarmolenko has not been charged and is still out there,” Mumma said. “And there is evidence to pursue.”