The N.C. Court Appeals has eliminated what may be the last hurdle between Mark Carver and a new murder trial or even his outright freedom.
In a unanimous opinion, three judges from the state’s second-highest court dismissed a prosecutor’s appeal of a lower court ruling that overturned Carver’s first-degree murder conviction in the death of UNC Charlotte student Irina Yarmolenko.
In a statement Tuesday to the Observer, defense attorney Chris Mumma hailed the ruling, and called on Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell to drop the charges and redirect his efforts to finding student’s actual killer.
“It’s time to acknowledge Mr. Carver’s innocence, give him his complete freedom back, and turn investigative efforts back to obtaining true justice for Ira Yarmolenko,” Mumma said.
“The blindness to injustice needs to end.”
Bell did not respond to an Observer email Tuesday seeking comment.
Yarmolenko was a 20-year-old UNCC sophomore in May 2008 when her body was found along the banks of the Catawba River in Mount Holly. Investigators said she had been strangled.
Carver, a Gaston County resident, and his cousin were fishing downstream around the same time. Both were charged in the killing. The cousin died of a heart attack in 2010 shortly before his trial. Carver was convicted in 2011 and sentenced to a mandatory life imprisonment.
Carver’s guilt has long been disputed. In 2016, the Observer published “Death by the River,” a six-part series that raised questions about Carver’s conviction and the defense he received at his trial.
In recent years, the verbal courtroom sparring between Bell and Mumma has turned particularly biting, often veering into accusations of attorney misconduct.
In her appeal, Mumma, executive director of the North Carolina Center for Actual Innocence, argued two fronts: that Carver received an incompetent defense; and that “touch DNA” found on Yarmolenko’s car, which prosecutors used to tie Carver to the scene, would not stand up to modernized testing.
Carver’s original defense team did not present a case at the trial. Mumma said the jury should have heard about Carver’s extremely low IQ and extensive physical disabilities that made it unlikely he could have killed Yarmolenko. Carver’s attorneys also did not challenge the DNA evidence presented by the state.
In 2019, Superior Court Judge Christopher Bragg threw out Carver’s conviction and ordered a new trial.
Bell’s appeal of Bragg’s ruling was heard by the Court of Appeals panel in January. The resulting opinion, authored by Judge Richard Dietz, rejected the state’s arguments on largely procedural grounds.
The ruling sends the case back to Gaston County, and puts the spotlight on Bell’s next step: make good on an earlier pledge to retry Carver or drop the charges entirely.
In the past, Bell has been outspoken in his belief in Carver’s guilt.
Mumma said the prosecution’s case against her client has been replete with errors, adding that Bell has had two years to retest the DNA evidence from Carver’s trial under the modern standards but has failed to do so.
All the while, she said, Yarmolenko’s true killer remains at large.