In 2011, Mark Carver was convicted of the death of a UNC Charlotte student found dead on the banks of the Catawba River.
But in June, Superior Court Judge Christopher Bragg overturned Carver’s conviction. It’s been almost three months since he posted bond and walked out of the Gaston County jail.
But to say that Carver is a free man, would be an overstatement. Although his conviction was overturned, Carver’s charges still stand.
Mark Carver is a man of few words. He doesn’t have a lot to say about his former defense team or go into details about his case. He speaks in a low, slow voice and uses a cane when he walks. When you ask him about the time he spent in prison where he says the bed was like a metal fence with lights on all the time even at night, it’s hard for him to articulate.
"It was just hard. It was like a nightmare, that’s all I can say," Mark Carver said.
What he does say is something he’s been saying all along: that he’s innocent.
"I didn’t do it and I said it all the time and I think he made the right ruling," Carver said.
That he is Judge Christopher Bragg who ruled in June that Carver’s original defense team provided ineffective counsel on several fronts. Because of that ruling the 51-year-old Carver is now home with his brother Kyle and Kyle’s wife Robin.
They sit at the dining room table as Mark Carver recalls his first meal back home with his family.
"Pork chops and fried potatoes and macaroni and cheese," Carver said with a smile.
Robin and Kyle’s Gaston County home is full of family photos, a Bible sits in the center of the table. Kyle says the family has missed this, just being together and talking face to face.
"It’s better than talking on the phone. It’s not easy leaving the jailhouse with your loved one still there," Kyle Carver said.
How Carver got to be sitting at home with this family is in large part due to his lawyer Chris Mumma of the North Carolina Center On Actual Innocence. During an evidentiary hearing in April, Mumma argued Carver received ineffective counsel during his 2011 trial. And Judge Christopher Bragg agreed. He ruled Carver’s original lawyer Brent Ratchford neglected to interview Carver’s family and friends who may have provided insights into his low IQ. Judge Bragg said in his ruling that it was clear Carver suffers from some level of intellectual disability and that his disability would have been relevant regarding statements he made to authorities.
The Carver family hasn’t been in touch with Ratchford says Robin, Carver’s sister in-law. Ratchford declined to comment to WFAE.
"We fully trusted in Brent Ratchford and his decisions and thought he knew what he was doing," Robin Carver said.
Judge Bragg ruled Carver’s original defense team failed to obtain any medical records regarding his carpal tunnel surgeries and other health related issues. That was especially important since 20-year-old Ira Yarmolenko was strangled.
Judge Bragg also stated the DNA used to convict Carver in 2011 was doubtful. And that if the lab at the time had been using best practices, the result of the DNA analysis linking Carver to Yarmolenko's car, would have been inconclusive.
"Everybody congratulates us and tells us how happy they are that he is finally set free. And just curious as to when it will all truly be over and wanting to know what is going on with the case. And we just don’t really know right now," Robin Carver said.
That’s because the charges against him for Yarmolenko's murder have not been dismissed. He wears an ankle monitor, and while he’s not in a jail cell, he can’t leave the state. His family pays $30 a month to keep the monitor active his attorney Chris Mumma said.
Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell could still decide to retry Mark’s case or appeal Judge Bragg’s ruling. Bell could dismiss the charges but that seems unlikely as he told reporters in June he believes Carver is guilty.
"I respect the judge but I’m very disappointed in it, I disagree with it. And at the proper time we will appeal," Bell said.
Bell would not return WFAE’s request for comment for this story.
As much as the Carver family is in this state of limbo, so is the Yarmelenko family. That’s something the Carvers—including Mark Carver, think about.
"Well, I know they are hurting on account of it but family is hurting, too. I just hate it for them, too," Mark Carver said.
Kyle Carver takes a breath before reflecting on the Yarmolenko family. He says he knows his brother is innocent and feels for their pain.
"What happened on that riverbank should have never happened. I’ve always said if he done it he needed to go to jail, but I don’t think he did," Kyle Carver said through tears.
Kyle added it’s hard to have faith in the criminal justice system after what the family experienced.
"You put your faith in it and something like this here happens and you go back and sit in the court room and everything that has been brought up that was done wrong and wasn’t done right, how can you trust it?" Kyle Carver asked.
There’s one person in power that just can’t let go of Carver’s case, Kyle says. That person, the family believes, is Locke Bell. Robin adds the family is anxious waiting for more news.
"It’s hard because we are ready for it to be done , wanting him to truly be free," Robin Carver said.
Robin and Kyle live about 10 miles from where Yarmolenko's body was found in 2008. The same area where Mark Carver and his cousin Neal Cassada had been fishing nearby. It’s difficult for the family to avoid, Kyle says. Their son works right around there.
But Carver says he’ll never go back. He’s just trying to move on.
Robin adds that many of their family and friends fish. It could have been anyone one of us fishing that day, she says.
Fishing and camping is still a staple in the Carver family.
Mark Carver is a man of few words. But his eyes light up when he lists his family members who have come to visit him. His eyes get especially bright with the mention of his granddaughter.
The Carver family can only hope that this new normal of Mark Carver around the dinner table is a permanent fixture, and not just a fleeting moment of what freedom could taste like.