Mark Carver’s murder conviction fell apart in 2019. Will Gov. Roy Cooper pardon him?

North Carolina still owes Mark Carver an apology, his attorney says.

The 55-year-old spent more than eight years in prison, convicted in 2011 of murdering UNC Charlotte student Irina Yarmolenko. But the case never added up.

As The Charlotte Observer reported in a 2016 series, Death by the River, Carver had carpal tunnel syndrome, limiting his grip and casting doubt on him strangling Yarmolenko to death. His IQ, tested to be somewhere in the 60s or 70s, raised questions about how he could have schemed and executed a murder.

More damning, DNA samples collected from the student’s car — the case’s linchpin — were gathered with an often doubted technique called “touch DNA.”

After the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence took Carver’s case, Superior Court Judge Christopher Bragg overturned his conviction in 2019, citing ineffective defense from his past lawyers. A Gaston County prosecutor’s appeal failed. In 2022 the county’s district attorney dismissed the murder charge, citing “no longer sufficient DNA evidence.”

Out of prison for about four years, Carver is still waiting for Gov. Roy Cooper to approve a pardon of innocence, which his lawyer formally requested nearly a year ago.

That would bring needed closure, Carver told The Observer this week. It would also make him eligible to financial compensation for the years he was locked away.

“I want to clear my name of something I didn’t do,” he said during a phone interview. “I’m just like anybody else. Put yourself in my position. Wouldn’t you want the same thing?”

Mark Carver on Sept. 13, 2023.
Mark Carver on Sept. 13, 2023.

The path to prison

“There’s a car that’s run off an embankment and there’s a body… laying there!” a 911 caller reported.

Twenty-year-old Irina Yarmolenko’s body was found on a remote riverbank of the Catawba River, near Mount Holly, on May 5, 2008. A bungee cord, her hoodie’s drawstring and a ribbon were wrapped around her neck.

That day, Carver and cousin Neal Cassada were fishing nearby. They were charged later that year.

At the trial, Carver’s defense attorneys introduced no evidence, believing that the state’s case was weak, one told The Observer. But the purported DNA match, proximity to the scene and misleading testimony from a detective helped a jury convict Carver of first-degree murder.

He consistently said that he didn’t kill Yarmolenko or even see her or her car. He allowed his cheeks to be swabbed for DNA testing, repeatedly offered to take a polygraph and ultimately turned down a plea deal.

He spent the next eight years behind bars, serving what was meant to be a life sentence.

A long, hard, frustrating road

Cassada died from a heart attack on the Sunday before his 2011 trial.

While Carver sat in prison, he missed graduations, the birth of one of his grandchildren and one of his daughters getting married. Other family members died.

Now exonerated, he is back in Gaston County, living with his father mostly. Disabled, he doesn’t work. He doesn’t fish anymore. His arrest soured that longtime hobby, he said.

He wants the government to apologize for the years lost.

“It has been a long, hard, and frustrating road for Mr. Carver,” a petition for a pardon of innocence dated Sept. 19, 2022, says. It was filed by Carver’s longtime lawyer who helped overturn his conviction, Christine Mumma, the executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence.

A pardon of innocence would acknowledge that Carver’s conviction was wrongful, and could entitle him to $50,000 for every year he spent behind bars.

But it’s not about the money, his family said.

“It’s about clearing his name once and for all,” said sister-in-law Robin Carver, who helps take care of him. “He’s been exonerated. We don’t understand why it’s taken so long for him to get the pardon.”

Carver’s family has not heard from the governor’s office since the petition was filed nearly a year ago, Robin Carver said.

Mumma told The Observer that the wait has taken longer than other clients she’s represented.

Pardon timelines vary, with no clear data

With little data available, one professor said that it’s hard to characterize Carver’s year-long wait for a pardon.

“I wouldn’t find it atypical,” Jamie Lau, a Duke Law School professor, lawyer and supervising attorney to the school’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, said. “I can’t say that it’s normal as well.”

Michael Parker, who was in prison for more than 20 years on charges that he sexually abused his own children in Henderson County, was exonerated with new evidence in 2014. He applied for a pardon of innocence the next year, and is still waiting on word from the governor, Lau said.

By comparison Ronnie Long spent 44 years behind bars for a rape and burglary case out of Concord. He was release in 2020 and got a pardon in mere months, Lau said.

In 2020 Lau and other staff at Duke lamented an increasingly foggy clemency system in an op-ed. The Governor’s Clemency Office stopped publishing the names and number of people who applied for clemency.

The Observer requested data on the number of petitions submitted, approved, denied and pending since 2018 to better gauge how long Carver’s wait has been compared to others. The governor’s press office did not respond to that request.

Cooper has approved pardons before. In December 2022, for example, he pardoned four following rallies outside the governor’s mansion. Advocates had demanded that he use his clemency powers more often.

N.C. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper talks with reporters after the opening ceremony of North Carolina Freedom Park in downtown Raleigh on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023.
N.C. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper talks with reporters after the opening ceremony of North Carolina Freedom Park in downtown Raleigh on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023.

Expert: Clemency process a ‘black box’

The Governor’s Clemency Office and his Office of General Counsel review pardon applications and the cases they stem from to make recommendations.

The Observer made multiple requests to interview staff at the Governor’s Clemency Office. That office referred a reporter to the governor’s press team, which provided a brief statement.

“Requests for pardons follow an intensive review of many elements, including but not limited to outcomes in court, circumstances of the crimes, length of the sentences, records in prison and record after the sentence is completed,” Jordan Monaghan, a spokesperson for Cooper, said.

What exactly the review entails is vague, though, lawyers told The Observer.

“Once that petition goes to the governor, the process is pretty much a black box,” Lau said. “It’s very opaque.”

No one knows what review takes place and what recommendations are made.

The governor’s office has some established prerogative to secrecy, Lau said. It was reaffirmed when the Raleigh News & Observer sued then-Gov. Mike Easley in 2005.

The newspaper had filed a records request with Easley’s office asking for access to clemency applications, the register of applications and records that reflect support or opposition to requests.

Easley released copies of clemency applications, the names of people supporting the application and documents granting clemency. The governor kept confidential copies of letters supporting and opposing clemency and related records, the News & Observer reported in 2007.

Then-Wake County Superior Court Judge Evelyn Hill dismissed the lawsuit. In 2007 the state Court of Appeals upheld her dismissal.

“There’s some legal precedent for the governor’s office completely lacking transparency with respect to the issue of clemency,” Lau said.