In May of 2008, a UNC Charlotte student was found dead on the banks of the Catawba River. That student was Ira Yarmolenko. Her body was found lying beside her car with three bindings around her neck. Two Gaston County men who were fishing nearby where Yarmolenko's body was found, Mark Carver and Neal Cassada, were charged with murder.
Cassada died before the murder trial. Carver was convicted in 2011 and is currently serving a life sentence.
His attorneys are hoping to change that. This week, Superior Court Judge Christopher Bragg is hearing testimony from witnesses ranging from medical professionals to family members.
WFAE’s Sarah Delia was at the Gaston County Courthouse this morning and joined "All Things Considered" host Mark Rumsey to discuss the trial.
Mark Rumsey: So Sarah, this was a huge case at the time. Remind us how Mark Carver was convicted.
Sarah Delia: Carver was convicted on two major points. The first was touch DNA found on a vehicle. Touch DNA is controversial to some people because it can be easily transferred and it’s small amounts of DNA. The second point was testimony from a detective who said that Carver had described the victim during an interrogation interview.
But today was more focused around Carver’s physical and mental capabilities versus old evidence.
Mark Carver was present in an orange jumpsuit and ankle shackles in court today. He was paying attention to all the testimony. Both he and his lawyers would sort of crane their necks to look at the state when they went to ask a question and then immediately over to the person testifying to hear their answer.
Behind Carver was four full rows of friends and family members. People like his daughters, cousins and a brother. Besides his friends, family, various lawyers, it was mostly media in the room. I should add that the judge is not allowing any media to record inside the courtroom and that could be because this case has seen a lot of attention over the years. In 2016, The Charlotte Observer put a spotlight on Carver’s case in a six-part series that explores and questions his conviction.
Rumsey: Who testified this morning?
Delia: We heard testimony from Carver’s two daughters. Both testified that they would help Carver with chores and household duties. They said they had to help with these tasks because of Carver’s carpal tunnel syndrome. They did things like helping him tie his own shoes. That detail is especially interesting because the victim was found with those three bindings around her neck, so clearly the defense is trying to raise some doubt there.
Carver’s attorney is Chris Mumma, the director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence. He posed questions to both of the daughters about Carver’s intelligence. Both testified that their father couldn’t read or write.
And multiple people testified that Carver has a bad grip and would often drop objects.
We also heard from Carver’s brother. He testified he hunted with Mark Carver, but that he would have to help him with certain things because of his weak physical strength. A cousin testified to that as well. He made a comment that he would have to help bait fishing lines or pullback a crossbow that he said Carver used.
Rumsey: What kind of questions did the state have during cross-examination?
Delia: From his line of questioning, Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell is trying to prove that Mark Carver was of reasonable intelligence — that he could do things like pick up his daughters from school and go to the bank. He even bought a car. He also pointed out that Carver would sometimes go fishing alone and that when he did that, Carver would have to set up the fishing poles by himself and cast a line by himself.
Rumsey: Was anything brought up regarding Carver’s previous trial?
Delia: Carver’s defense team did not present any evidence or witnesses during the trial in 2011. And that was brought up time and time again today. Witnesses on the stand were asked if they were approached to testify eight years ago and overwhelmingly, the answer was no.
When Carver’s sister-in-law Robin Carver took the stand today, she recalled being told by Carver’s original defense team that not calling any witnesses or having Carver testify was a strategy. That way, the defense could have the last word at during closing arguments.
Carver’s defense attorney Chris Mumma asked her why the family thought that was a good strategy at the time. Robin Carver responded that in retrospect, it wasn’t but that they thought the attorney knew best at the time.
Rumsey: Any sense as to how long this hearing could last?
Delia: That is the question everyone is wondering. The hearing could very likely go into next week.