It may not be “The Staircase,” but another controversial North Carolina murder conviction is back in the news, with defense attorneys contending that police failed to investigate potential alternative suspects in an infamous 2008 killing.
Mark Carver was convicted of murdering Irina Yarmolenko, a college student whose body was found beside her car in a remote area along the Catawba River in Gaston County. Carver had been fishing nearby, but prosecutors offered no motive for the killing—instead their case was overwhelmingly dependent on the fact that Carver’s “touch DNA” was found on Yarmolenko’s car.
Touch DNA is a new technique different from DNA extracted from blood or other bodily fluids. It’s found in skin cells, often left in very low numbers, after an object has been touched or casually handled. Critics argue that it’s much less reliable than traditional DNA evidence, and a person’s touch DNA can end up on an object if they touched a person who later touched that object.
By a 2-1 margin, the state’s Court of Appeals rejected Carver’s argument that the trial judge should have granted his motion to dismiss the charges due to lack of evidence, and the Supreme Court affirmed without comment. Unfortunately for Carver, it’s very hard to prevail on a motion to dismiss criminal charges—they should be denied if there’s relevant evidence that a reasonable mind even might accept as adequate to support a conviction.
The dissenting judge, Robert N. Hunter, contended that prosecutors had failed to present evidence that a reasonable person even might deem sufficient. And yet 12 jurors deemed the evidence against Carver so overwhelming that it was beyond any reasonable doubt.
But now Chris Mumma, executive director of the North Carolina Center for Actual Innocence, has filed a motion alleging that investigators ignored witness reports of two alternative suspects. She says Carver’s trial defense team was never told about these witnesses, whose testimony might have altered the trial’s outcome. She’s asking that Carver’s conviction be thrown out.
Lawyers Weekly wrote about both appellate decisions when they were published. The Charlotte Observer also published an investigation, “Death by the River,” in 2016 that is definitely worth reading.