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Mark Carver

Other North Carolina Murder Exonerations
Just before 1:00 p.m. on May 5, 2008, a man and a woman on jet skis spotted the body of a woman next to a car on the banks of the Catawba River in Belmont, North Carolina. The man flagged down a nearby construction worker, who dialed 911.

Officers with the Belmont and Mount Holly police departments arrived at the scene and were able to identify the woman as 20-year-old Irina Yarmolenko, a student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Yarmolenko’s Saturn was at the water’s edge, stuck on a tree stump, with both doors open on the driver’s side. The car was in neutral and the keys were outside the car on the ground. The engine wasn’t running, and the airbags hadn’t deployed. Yarmolenko’s body was next to the car, with her feet pointing toward the water. Her hand appeared to be gripping a vine. An officer would later testify her clothes and body were wet, although this wasn’t mentioned in any police reports.

An autopsy performed the next day found that Yarmolenko had been strangled with three different items apparently taken from her car: a black sweatshirt drawstring; a blue ribbon that matched the ribbon on a bag in her car; and a bungee cord similar to another bungee cord found in the trunk. Investigators also found a half-eaten sandwich from Wendy’s in the trunk. That seemed out of place; Yarmolenko was a vegetarian.

From interviews and surveillance videos, investigators were able to build a timeline of Yarmolenko’s movements prior to her death. Between 10-11 a.m., she had gone to the bank, to Goodwill, and then to a coffee shop before heading west and crossing the Catawba. At 11:07 a.m., a surveillance video at the Stowe Family YMCA in Belmont appeared to capture her car entering and leaving the facility’s parking lot, which was a few hundred yards from where her body was found. The footage wasn’t clear enough to show who was driving the car or whether Yarmolenko was alone.

Yarmolenko worked as a photographer at the student newspaper, and an editor at the paper told police that Yarmolenko might have been trying to scout out locations to take photos of the nearby U.S. National Whitewater Center, which was on the other side of the river.

At about 2:15 p.m., an officer with the Mount Holly Police Department interviewed Mark Carver, who was fishing about 200 feet from where Yarmolenko and her car had been found. Carver said he and his cousin, Neal Cassada, had gotten to the fishing spot about 11 a.m. Carver said that at around noon, he and Cassada had heard something that sounded like a bulldozer scraping the ground. He gave the officer his contact information and Cassada’s information, then shook hands with the officer, and went to pick up his daughter. Carver returned to the river later that day; he said he had forgotten his fishing net. The officers wouldn’t allow him to retrieve the item. Carver returned the next day, but the net was gone.

The Belmont police towed Yarmolenko’s car to a secure garage. The Gaston County Police Department processed the car for fingerprints on May 5 and May 7, 2008.

Carver gave a formal statement that was written down by Detective Lloyd Addis of the Mount Holly Police Department on May 15, 2008, and provided more detail about what he had seen on the river. He mentioned the jet ski riders, as well as another boater, and that he had heard the man on the jet ski tell the man in the boat to call 911. He said he didn’t know someone had died until he heard about it on the news.

At the time of Yarmolenko’s death, Carver was 39 years old and retired on medical disability. He had two arrests – but no convictions – for acts of violence, including an incident in 2007 where he accidentally shot and wounded his son while they were wrestling. Investigators interviewed Carver and Cassada several times, their suspicions aroused by the men’s statements that despite their proximity to the crime scene, they didn’t hear a thing.

In July, the police swabbed the car and the items used to strangle Yarmolenko for DNA evidence. This evidence was sent to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation’s (SBI) crime laboratory in Raleigh, where it was compared against buccal swabs taken in October from Carver and Cassada.

On December 10, 2008, the lab reported that it had been able to obtain a partial DNA profile from a swabbing near the rear door on the driver’s side. The profile consisted of a mixture of several DNA profiles, the lab report said, but the predominant profile “matched” Carver.

The lab also reported it had obtained two profiles from the passenger door armrest and door glass. These profiles, the lab said, “matched” Cassada.

Police arrested Cassada and Carver on December 12, 2008, charging both men with murder and felony conspiracy to commit murder.

In 2010, The crime laboratory with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department in Columbia, South Carolina, performed additional DNA testing on the items used to strangle Yarmolenko. Carver and Cassada were excluded as contributors. The SBI lab’s testing had produced similar results.

Cassada was to go to trial first, but he died of a heart attack on October 10, 2010, the day before his trial was to start.

Carver’s trial in Gaston County Superior Court began on March 14, 2011. He was represented by Brent Ratchford, with co-counsel David Phillips, who had represented Cassada. The state based its case on Carver’s proximity to the crime scene, the DNA evidence, and a statement Carver made to investigators after his arrest, where he appeared to say he knew Yarmolenko’s approximate size and height.

Addis testified about his interactions with Carver. He said that he wrote down Carver’s statement on May 15, because Carver told him that he didn’t read or write very well. At the time, Addis testified, Carver wasn’t a suspect, but he and other officers later made several trips to the Catawba, where they stood at Carver’s fishing spot and the point where Yarmolenko’s car was found.

A prosecutor asked Addis: “Now while standing at that particular fishing spot, are you able to hear noises from the location where the victim’s body was discovered?” Addis said yes.

Then, the prosecutor asked how he could be sure. “Because Detective [William] Terry and I went down there and talking in a normal voice could hear from each other’s location and tossed small rocks into the water from each location and you could hear it easily.”

Terry also testified about the results of the sound experiment, confirming Addis’s account. In addition, he told jurors about items found in Yarmolenko’s trunk, including a camera that required film. Terry said the camera’s counter showed two pictures had been taken, but there was no film in the camera.

Under cross-examination, Terry said he didn’t know whether the camera worked and that he didn’t know whether there were boats on the river or construction equipment operating when he and Addis listened for each other.

Terry also testified about statements Carver made on December 12, 2008, after his arrest, during an interview with Terry and SBI Agent David Crow, who told Carver that he would be sent to Death Row if he didn’t confess. Terry testified that Carver accurately described Yarmolenko as being a “little girl,” and that Carver stood up to show the officers how tall she was. On cross-examination, Terry acknowledged that Carver also said he might have seen pictures of Yarmolenko on the TV.

Terry was one of the first officers on the scene, and he testified about Yarmolenko’s appearance. “She was laying on her back with three things wrapped around her neck,” he said. “Her body was wet. Her clothing was wet. It appeared that her hair was wet, also.”

Detective Jim Workman, a crime-scene technician with the Gaston County Police Department, testified that he was able to lift 13 fingerprints from Yarmolenko’s car. He testified that only one of the prints “was of some value.” He was asked:

Q. Were you able to compare it to any known samples?

A. No, we were not.

Q. So none of them were having enough ridge detail to actually be used for comparison purposes?

A. That’s correct. . . .

Q. So out of all of the lifts that you lifted from the car, were you able to compare those prints to anyone?

A. No, I was not.

Q. You weren’t even able to compare those fingerprints to, say, the defendant?

A. No, I was not.

Q. Because they weren’t of value?

A. That’s correct.

Workman testified that he also analyzed fingerprints lifted from the car’s interior by Detective J.D. Costner with the Mount Holly Police Department.

Assistant District Attorney Stephanie Hamlin asked Workman:

“From looking at the lifts that Detective Costner provided you, were any of them of value to be able to compare to a known sample?”

“No, they were not.”

On cross-examination, Workman was asked, “Of the thirteen prints that you took out there on the scene on May 5, 2008, did you find Mark Carver’s fingerprints anywhere out there?”

He responded, “No, sir.”

On redirect, Workman again said he wasn’t able to make any comparisons of the fingerprints. He was asked, “So you have no idea whose fingerprints those were on the car?”

“That’s correct,” he answered.

Karen Winningham, a forensic scientist with the SBI, testified about her analysis of the DNA evidence collected by the officers in Gaston County. She testified that the evidence was so-called “touch DNA,” typically left after a person touches a surface and leaves skin cells.

Winningham testified that she was able to generate a partial profile from genetic material left above the driver’s side rear door.

“I found that it was consistent with a mixture, meaning that there is more than one contributor, and the predominant profile matched to the DNA profile from Mark Carver,” she said.

Winningham testified that her statistical analysis said that “the swabbing from the pillar above the driver’s side rear door is approximately 126 million times more likely to be observed from Mark Carver than if it came from another unrelated individual in the North Carolina Caucasian population.”

She testified similarly about the evidence collected on the window and on a front-door armrest, tying that material to Cassada. Winningham testified that Carver couldn’t be excluded as a contributor to genetic material found on the seat belt button in the rear passenger seat.

Winningham also testified about the genetic material found on the items used to strangle Yarmolenko. She testified that Carver and Cassada were excluded as contributors to genetic material found on the ribbon and bungee cord and that Yarmolenko was identified as a contributor to the ribbon and drawstring and couldn’t be excluded as a contributor to the bungee cord. She also said there were unidentified contributors to the ribbon and the bungee cord.

During cross-examination, Winningham said that she did not think the DNA attributed to Carver was the result of tertiary transfer, meaning that Person A came in contact with Person B’s DNA and then Person A deposited that DNA on another surface. “I am not saying that it is not possible but it is not probable,” she said.

After the state rested, Carver’s attorneys moved to dismiss the murder and conspiracy charges. Phillips said there was no evidence that Carver had killed Yarmolenko or that tied him to the murder weapons. He said: “The fact that Neal Cassada may have touched one side of the car. Mark Carver touched the other. Did they touch it at the same time? Did one touch it at 11:00 and another person touched it at 1:00? Hey, Neal, go look down here, look what I saw. That doesn’t prove murder, Your Honor. It proves that they may have touched – in the light most favorable to the State, they may have touched the car. What’s the conspiracy?”

Assistant District Attorney William Stetzer said it was possible that Carver’s and Cassada’s DNA had been washed away from the bindings after Yarmolenko was placed in the river and then dragged back on shore. “What the evidence did show is a very isolated place in a very short time period with two people there with their DNA present and near a recently murdered dead girl,” he said.

Judge Timothy Kincaid dismissed the conspiracy charge but not the murder charge.

Carver’s attorneys presented no witnesses. In closing arguments, Stetzer finally put forth a motive for the killing. He told the jury that he believed Yarmolenko took a photo of Carver and Cassada doing something that they didn’t want anybody to know about. The two men attacked her, and then took the film from the camera.

The jury convicted Carver of first-degree murder on March 21, 2011, and he was sentenced to life in prison.

Carver appealed his conviction, arguing that Judge Kincaid erred in not dismissing the case based on insufficient evidence. In a 2-1 decision, the North Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction on June 5, 2012. The majority opinion said that the evidence against Carver was circumstantial, but sufficient. The dissenting opinion, by Justice Robert Hunter, said that touch DNA was less reliable than DNA testing using blood or other bodily fluids.

Hunter also said that touching a car was not evidence of committing a murder. “There is no other evidence tying the defendant to the crime scene. As such, I cannot hold that substantial evidence of circumstances accompanies the defendant’s touch DNA on the victim’s car to indicate such DNA could only have been left at the time the murder was committed,” Hunter wrote.

The North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence began representing Carver after that ruling. On December 8, 2016, Center attorneys Christine Mumma and Cheryl Sullivan, filed a motion for appropriate relief, asking that Carver be granted a new trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel and newly discovered evidence.

The motion said that Ratchford and Phillips had failed to present evidence of Carver’s intellectual limitations and the carpal-tunnel syndrome that hindered his grip strength and made him “physically incapable of committing murder in the manner in which this one was perpetrated.”

It also said that Ratchford had failed to present evidence contradicting the state’s witnesses’ testimony that sound traveled easily between Carver’s location on the river and where Yarmolenko was found.

The motion said that Ratchford had failed to adequately cross-examine Terry about Carver’s interview and his description of Yarmolenko. The interview was videotaped, but it was Crow who made the first mention of Yarmolenko’s height, telling Carver: “Let’s go back to May … when you were down there fishing at the lake, and you know why, I mean, the girl – your little girl got killed down there, same day you were down there fishing.”

As part of discovery, Ratchford had been given a report that noted the camera’s picture counter could be advanced even if there was no film in the camera. But he failed to ask Terry this question, which helped prosecutors put forth the theory that Carver and Cassada had killed Yarmolenko over some photographs.

Most importantly, the motion said, Carver’s defense team had failed to challenge the state on the touch DNA evidence. Ratchford had retained a DNA expert, but he did not call the expert to testify, and Ratchford would later say that the expert had told him that the state’s science was good.

A year before the trial, a group known as the Scientific Working Group for DNA Analysis Methods (SWGDAM) published a paper on best practices for interpreting complex or incomplete DNA samples. If the SBI’s lab had followed the working group’s guidelines, according to a report included in the motion, the samples from the car and from Carver would have “matched” at only two points, and the results would have been reported as “inconclusive.” (The motion said that although Carver’s trial attorneys "essentially" conceded that Carver touched the car, that was incorrect; Carver denied touching the car.)

The motion was later amended and included a claim that prosecutors had failed to turn over exculpatory evidence. A woman had told police in the early days of the investigation that she had seen a man running away from the river carrying a book bag, and he was “wet with sweat or water.” This information wasn’t provided to the defense.

During an evidentiary hearing in April 2019 before Judge Christopher Bragg of Gaston County Superior Court, Dr. Maher Noureddine, who had written the report re-examining the state’s DNA findings, testified that Winningham had also given improper statistics on the probability that it was Carver rather than someone else who contributed the DNA. What she referred to as a random-match probability was wrong, he said. “That is completely contrary to what the statistics are supposed to convey,” Noureddine said. “The random match probability conveys how likely or what is the random chance of finding a particular profile in the random population without reference to the actual individual.”

Noureddine also testified that had the DNA from the vehicle been analyzed using the SWGDAM recommendations for interpretation of mixtures, none of the DNA would have tied to Carver or Cassada.

At the evidentiary hearing, Workman testified about the fingerprint comparisons, but now said that Carver’s and Cassada’s fingerprints had been excluded from the prints of value lifted at the crime scene.

Q. So the prints were compared to Mark Carver; is that correct?

A. Yes. . . .

Q. Was that information ever disclosed at trial, to your knowledge?

A. Not to my knowledge.

Q. Was it disclosed through your testimony when you were asked?

A. Not my testimony that I can remember, ma'am.

Q. And a comparison was made to Mr. Carver and Mr. Cassada; is that correct?

A. An examination of the prints were made and no identification was made.

Q. So did those prints have value?

A. Apparently so, yes, ma'am.

This contradicted his trial testimony, where he said he had been unable to use any of the lifted prints to compare against known samples. The motion said Ratchford had this information and should have corrected the false testimony, but the state bore the responsibility for presenting it to the jury.

Separately, two new witnesses testified at the hearing. Brothers James and John Beatty lived near the river and drove over there on May 5, 2008, after they saw a lifesaving boat on the water. They found Carver at their fishing spot, and he didn’t seem wet, disheveled, or flustered.

James Beatty said that about a year later, he and his brother met Stetzer at the river. John stayed at the fishing spot. James and Stetzer went to where the car had been in an effort to determine what could be heard. “He was hollering back up there and we were hollering back at him but we could not understand each other,” James said. His brother also testified about this experiment.

James Beatty was subpoenaed as a state’s witness at the trial, but he never testified. Carver’s attorneys were unaware of this experiment.

The state’s witnesses at the evidentiary hearing included a forensic scientist from the SBI lab, who pushed back against Noureddine’s findings. McKenzie DeHaan testified that the working group’s 2010 report contained only guidelines, not regulations, and they “have very specifically stated that they are not meant to be applied retroactively because you have to perform new validation studies in order to incorporate some of the changes.”

The analysis that Winningham performed was good DNA science at the time it was conducted, based on the equipment and validation studies that the lab used, she said.

Following the hearing, Carver’s attorneys again amended their motion for relief. It said that prosecutors had failed to disclose the evidence about the hearing test done by the Beattys. “The Beattys’ testimony at the hearing indicates that Mr. Stetzer knew at the time of trial that the testimony from Detectives Terry and Addis that they could hear each other talking in a normal voice was false,” the motion said.

During the evidentiary hearing, the defense also claimed that State misled the jury when they police and prosecutors described Yarmolenko’s body as wet, which allowed them to argue that Carver’s DNA had been washed away. None of the police reports mentioned this fact. The amended motion said that Carver’s trial attorneys should have spotted this problem, but that the state bore responsibility for this misrepresentation.

On June 5, 2019, Judge Bragg granted Carver’s motion for a new trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel and the new evidence contained in Noureddine’s report. He did not find that the state failed to turn over exculpatory evidence or committed misconduct at trial.

In his ruling, Judge Bragg said that Carver’s defense team had failed to investigate and obtain Carver’s medical records and have him undergo a psychological evaluation, which would have revealed his physical and intellectual limitations. “Evidence of Mr. Carver's intellectual disabilities would be relevant regarding statements he made during his questioning by SBI Special Agent Crow,” Bragg said.

Most importantly, Bragg said that Carver's attorney failed to adequately prepare to challenge the state on the DNA evidence. His only consultation with an expert was extremely limited, Bragg said. Although the attorney wasn’t required to investigate every possible defense, Bragg said he was required to not cede the ground so quickly.

“The DNA evidence in this case is the linchpin and basis of Mr. Carver's conviction for first-degree murder. The State has argued strenuously, and pointed out repeatedly, that the SWGDAM 2010 report itself states, the revised guidelines are not intended to be applied retroactively,” Bragg said. “However, the facts are that Mr. Carver is serving life in prison without parole based on the DNA match of [the door panel], and the testing, analysis, and interpretation of that item is doubtful at best based on advances in the testing, analysis, and interpretation of DNA mixtures.”

Carver was released from prison on a $100,000 bond on June 11, 2019, and required to wear an ankle monitor.

The state appealed Judge Bragg’s ruling, but the North Carolina Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal on April 20, 2021, writing that the state couldn’t appeal a motion granting a new trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel. The North Carolina Supreme Court denied the state’s petition for discretionary review on November 1, 2021.

The next day, Carver’s attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the case, and a judge later set a hearing for August 16, 2022.

On August 12, 2022, Gaston County District Attorney Travis Page, who took office in 2021, dismissed the charge against Carver. Page’s filing said, “Upon a retesting and re-examination of the physical evidence, there is no longer sufficient DNA evidence to support the charge.”

Carver celebrated the dismissal, removing the electronic monitor that he had worn around his ankle for the past three years.

Mumma said in a statement: “We are appreciative of the professionalism shown by District Attorney Page since he took office last year. Justice has finally been served for Mark Carver and Neal Cassada. If all the evidence had been accurately presented to the jury at the time of Mark’s trial, Mark would never have been convicted and Mr. Cassada may not have passed away on the eve of his trial. Both men are innocent — as they have always proclaimed.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 8/23/2022
Last Updated: 8/23/2022
State:North Carolina
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2008
Age at the date of reported crime:39
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes