Mark Carver did not testify eight years ago when he was convicted for the 2008 murder of UNC Charlotte student Ira Yarmolenko in Gaston County. Carver is serving a life sentence, but for the last two weeks a hearing has been underway to determine whether that conviction should be overturned. Yesterday, Carver took the stand.
WFAE’s Sarah Delia has been in Gaston County this week covering this hearing. She spoke about it with Morning Edition Co-Host Lisa Worf.
Worf: Carver was fishing on the Catawba River the day Yarmolenko was killed. Police found her body near where Carver and a cousin were fishing. Did he say whether he saw Yarmolenko or her vehicle?
Delia: When Carver first took the stand yesterday that was one of the first questions his defense attorney Chris Mumma asked him. Did you ever touch Ira Yarmolenko’s body? Carver’s answer, no. Did you ever touch her car? Answer no. Did you ever see her car? Answer, no. Mumma was trying to drive home a point she says Carver has been consistent on—the fact that Carver says he never crossed paths with Yarmolenko or her car.Mumma has argued that Carver has a low IQ which is one of the reasons she says he couldn’t have committed the murder. The other reason is his physical weakness. Carver has carpal tunnel syndrome which he had surgery for. She actually asked Carver to show the judge yesterday the scars he still has from the procedure. She says physically speaking there is no way he could have killed Yarmolenko, pointing to the fact that he has a bad grip.Mumma also questioned the validity of the DNA evidence that was used to convict him in in 2011. Touch DNA requires only a small amount of DNA and can be easily transferred. On top of all that, Mumma has argued that Carver did not receive adequate representation in 2011.
Worf: Was Carver adamant in his innocence? And what was his demeanor in answering questions yesterday?
Delia: To kind of set the scene, all eyes were on Carver. This was sort of the moment everyone had been waiting for. He was sort of slouched and stared over these big, round glasses at the person asking him the question. He spoke so softly the judge and even his attorney had to keep reminding him to speak into the microphone.
He muttered to himself more than once when asked a question that he had difficulty remembering the answer to - “It’s been such a long time.”
Carver was able to answer very direct questions—like did you touch Ira Yarmelonko’s car? Answer no. Did you touch her body? Answer no.
But when it came to questions about time or sequence of events, he seemed to get confused. Under cross-examination, Assistant District Attorney Stephanie Hamlin – who was part of the team that prosecuted Carver back in 2011– pointed out that Carver gave different time accounts about his activity the day of the murder. Sometimes he recalled to law enforcement that he was early to pick his daughter up from school that day. At another point, he told police he was late to pick her up. He gave different answers regarding the amount of time he spent with his cousin Neal Cassada the day of the murder when they were fishing.
Worf: Carver’s attorneys have been questioning the validity of the physical evidence used to convict Carver? What is problematic about the evidence in their view?
Delia: Chris Mumma and the DNA experts she called have questioned the validity of the DNA used to convict Carver and the way it was interpreted by the lab. She told reporters that based on policies in place at the time, the lab followed their policies. However, Mumma says at the time of the trial there were new DNA analysis guidelines that labs around the country were using and adopting that the lab in North Carolina was not. The outcome of the DNA evidence the defense argues could have been different if the lab was using updated guidelines. The state did call an expert witness from the state lab who testified the DNA in Carver’s case was interpreted correctly.
Worf: I understand Carver has not been the only focus of his trial, so have his former defense attorneys, one of which is now a superior court judge.
Delia: Right. There have been some tense moments in court as Mumma questioned Brent Rachford and David Phillips, who is now a judge. She’s been very critical of them because they didn’t present any evidence or have Carver testify. Both said they didn’t present any evidence or call witnesses because they felt good about the case and thought this was a clear win. Judge Phillips said Carver didn’t go on the stand because he would have been “crucified.” In other words, the defense thought the bad outweighed the good in having Carver go up on the stand and they wanted to go last during closing arguments. Plus, they didn’t think the state had met the burden of proof for a conviction. Ratchford even said he still believes to this day that Mark Carver is innocent.
Worf: You noted earlier that Carver’s current defense counsel Chris Mumma says he couldn’t have committed this crime because of his physical problems and low IQ. What have prosecutors argued in response?
Delia: The state has continuously argued that Mark Carver was of reasonable intelligence. They pointed out that Carver knew when to pick up his children from school and how to pay his bills and what medicine to take. They also maintain that Carver had the physical strength to commit the murder. He could drive a four-wheeler and a car. He could hunt—although the ability Carver had to hunt and fish has been called into question by the defense. The defense says he always needed someone to help him with hunting or fishing because of his carpal tunnel syndrome.
Worf: Closing arguments are today. When we can expect Judge Bragg to issue a ruling?
Delia: Judge Bragg said he will be retiring July 31 so we can expect a ruling before then, probably early June. He’ll take all his notes and copies from the case file to continue to review. He has his work cut out for him, there’s a lot to consider from the DNA evidence to the various witness testimonies we’ve heard over 2 weeks. Before court recessed yesterday, he said each side will have a full three hours to make their closing arguments today.