In May 2016, ABC 20/20 producer Sean Dooley and writer Jessica Hornig began work on an hour-long episode about Mark Carver's case that aired on Friday, December 9, 2016, with several successive re-broadcasts on ABC and ongoing replays through Discovery Communications channels. The Charlotte Observer's series of articles had caught the attention of 20/20 story scouts, and with the popularity of Netflix's "Making a Murder" series, innocence cases like Carver's are becoming more sought-after for feature broadcasts across many media outlets. A team of 20/20 writers, videographers and reporters collaborated to sift through newly-released information and obtain interviews, making this episode significant in its offering of several details that had never before been made public including original interrogation footage where Carver was fed information by an investigator.
Videography for the 20/20 episode on Carver's case was impressive. This case was 8 years old when 20/20 began its work on the episode, so surviving images and video from news coverage was scarce, and the 20/20 team did a good job of working with what they were able to obtain to pack the episode full of interesting images.
Even though an hour was devoted to the case, much of the backstory was left out in favor of exploring the three major elements that contributed to Carver's conviction, the questionable hearing distance between his fishing spot and where Yarmolenko's body was found, the touch DNA, and the assumption about Carver's knowledge of Yarmolenko's size and height which was fed to him by an investigator during a videotaped interrogation.
- Camera Use Inconclusive - Ira Yarmolenko's brother Pavel Yarmolenko responded to a question from interviewer Elizabeth Vargas as to why he thought his sister may have been on the Catawba River on May 5, 2008. He said, "I think she was looking for a pretty spot to take pictures at." During Mark Carver's trial, prosecutors theorized that Yarmolenko was taking pictures when she was attacked and killed. However, the only camera at the scene was a 35mm packed in Yarmolenko's car trunk. The camera contained no film, and no fingerprints or DNA were found on it, not even Yarmolenko's own, bringing into question whether it had been used at the scene.
- Carver's Education - The broadcast stated that Mark Carver never went to high school. Compare this to The Charlotte Observer's article stating he attended special education classes through the age of 16.
- 5 Years, 2 Prisons - Vargas asked Carver how long he had been in "this prison," to which Carver responded "5 years," meaning his total time of incarceration. Mark served his first 3 years at a close security facility in southern North Carolina before moving to the medium security facility in northwestern North Carolina where he was interviewed by Vargas.
- Carver's SUV - Carver's vehicle was called a "truck" early in the episode, but he drove a white Chevy S-10 Blazer which is a fully enclosed, compact SUV. Witness James Beatty who was interviewed facing away from the camera later in the story correctly described Carver's vehicle as an SUV.
- Goodwill Donation - Vargas stated that Yarmolenko donated "clothing" to Goodwill, but this is unknown. Surveillance video shows her handing over a backpack in addition to five additional large bags full of items. One of those bags appeared as though it might have been stuffed with soft items, possibly clothing, but the content of her donation aside from the backpack was never confirmed. She tried to hand two pillows to the Goodwill worker, but the worker refused them since Goodwill doesn't accept pillows, so she returned them to the back seat of her car.
- Order of Ligatures - The Charlotte Observer reporter Elizabeth Leland quoted the order of ligatures incorrectly. The ribbon was first, the hoodie drawstring second and the bungee cord last. See our research page for photo evidence and details about why the order is important.
- Sequence of Ligatures and Car Crash - Similar to the above point, one of the theories proposed by 20/20 is that Yarmolenko was strangled and then her car pushed down the embankment, the same theory proposed by prosecutors during trial. The problem with this - in addition to the fact that Yarmolenko's hand was grasping brush rooted to the ground where she lay - is that Yarmolenko's body and hair were soaking wet, yet the first ligature, the ribbon, was dry and showed no evidence of having been wet. This indicates she was submerged in the river prior to application of the ligatures, which complicates the theory of an earlier application. Suicide fits the scene findings better, but 20/20 never so much as mentioned this possibility even though it was key to closing arguments by Carver's 2011 trial defense attorneys.
- Video of Homes - While recounting Mark Carver's and Neal Cassada's arrests, several houses were quickly shown before the screen rested upon a boarded up and abandoned house that may have once belonged to Carver's grandmother. Cassada's house was absent from this footage. Carver's and Cassada's addresses were in two different towns, not down the street from each other as was stated in a pre-broadcast article.
- Carver's Attorney was a Public Defender - The episode incorrectly stated that Carver retained Attorney Brent Ratchford. Ratchford was in fact appointed as a public defender to Carver who was unable to pay for his own attorney. Cassada retained Attorney David Phillips, and the State allowed Phillips to join Ratchford in defending Carver after Cassada's death since the State had appointed two attorneys to prosecute. Phillips, who believed Yarmolenko's death was a suicide and that Cassada and Carver were both innocent, generously canceled the remainder of the amount privately owed to him by the Cassada family after Neal's death. Attorney Gordon Widenhouse, who specializes in appeals, was appointed by the State to represent Carver before the North Carolina Supreme Court. After that ruling, Widenhouse would have required a retainer fee in the 20K range to continue to represent Carver as a private client, which Carver could not afford. The North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence accepted Carver as a pro bono client and depends upon donations to fund its non-profit work.
- Jury Deliberated 5 Hours Over 2 Days - Vargas stated, "It took the jury just a few hours to return with a verdict." The jury deliberated for 5 hours over 2 days. During this time, they requested to review several case photographs and to be briefed on several definitions including, "Are we still to consider acting in concert?" This question indicated the jury was considering whether Carver acted as an accomplice to Cassada even though Cassada had never been tried (trial transcript, page 374-384). For 20/20 to state that the verdict took "just a few hours" without this context is misleading.
- DNA Expert - The DNA expert consulted for this episode either wasn't shown discussing or may have been unfamiliar with some of the details of the DNA in this case. Neither the expert nor any other speaker mentioned that all the touch DNA supposedly from both Carver and Cassada was found in mixtures originating from more than one contributor. This brings up the possibility of mis-identification, meaning Carver's and Cassada's touch DNA could have been absent from the samples, especially since old standards were used at the time of the lab evaluations. These and other details including contamination of the car during towing and storage are discussed on our DNA page. The possibility of secondary transfer is critical to Carver's post-conviction defense, however, other viable scenarios also exist with which to challenge the lab results.
- Non-Mechanical Asphyxia - Ms. Chris Mumma, Executive Director of The North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence that is representing Carver, stated the following:
"The hoodie string was probably enough to cut off the air supply in her neck,” Mumma said. “I think that alone would have killed her. The other two to me almost seemed decorative.”The hoodie drawstring is shown to be the second ligature in scene photos. As documented on our research page, pressure of 7 pounds is required to "cut off the air supply," also known as mechanical asphyxia versus asphyxia from loss of oxygen where the airway remains unobstructed. The pressure of the drawstring was never measured for the autopsy. Death by restriction of blood flow requiring 4.4 pounds of pressure or death by vagal reflex that stops the heart requiring less pressure than 4.4 pounds is more likely based on visuals of the ligatures. Restricted blood flow was described as the cause of death by the medical examiner during trial, meaning Yarmolenko's death was due to non-mechanical asphyxia and that her airway remained unobstructed, a common presentation of suicidal strangulation. Learn about these facts and more for yourself on our research page.
- Sound Experiment - The sound experiment from Carver's and Cassada's fishing spot to the location of Yarmolenko's body was a strong point of the episode (Vargas and Mumma could hear each other faintly only by yelling as loudly as they could), but Carver's jury heard a different version of it. Mount Holly Police Detective Lloyd Addis answered a leading question suggesting that he and MHPD Detective William Derek Terry stood at the two locations shown by 20/20, but Terry corrected this later by saying that he had been standing at the top of the embankment above where the body was found and that Addis was "in the area where Mark Carver was fishing" when they supposedly heard each other speaking in normal voices (trial transcript, pages 105-106, 140-142). It is unclear from the transcript how close to the river Addis was standing, although he did claim that both he and Terry tossed small rocks into the river from each location which he said they could also hear. On the day of Yarmolenko's death, noise from construction including dirt-moving equipment was ongoing near the scene. Addis and Terry conducted their sound experiment "in the days following the discovery of Ms. Yarmolenko" (page 105), but no mention was made to the jury about relative construction noise between the two days. This author would be curious to see the sound experiment done again as it was described by Terry and to investigate whether or not Addis may have also been standing at the top of the embankment.
While the 20/20 story superbly explained reasons to question Carver's conviction, the author of this website feels the story could have been improved by introduction of the suicide theory of Yarmolenko's death, which is supported by scene evidence and was presented by the defense during closing arguments of Carver's trial. Instead, murder was assumed throughout, which reporter Elizabeth Vargas described with terms such as "brutal," "violent" and "life and death match" even though Yarmolenko's body was in good condition, displayed no defensive wounds, lacked any internal injuries, had unbroken fingernails and presented an intact hyoid bone, the most delicate bone in the neck which is usually broken in homicidal strangulation and rarely broken in suicidal strangulation. These and many other observations about the circumstances, scene and body could have been tapped by 20/20 to present a cohesive picture of evidence.
In the trial transcript, March 18, 2011, page 359, closing arguments are replaced with this sentence, "Whereupon, Mr. Phillips, Mr. Stetzer and Mr. Ratchford presented their closing arguments to the jury." David Phillips presented the suicide theory during his portion of the closing arguments, and although his statements about suicide were quoted by multiple media outlets, only a few of those reports remain online at present.
WBTV reported, "Carver's attorney theorized Yarmolenko committed suicide, because the ribbon was tied in a bow around her neck, and there were no scratch marks on her neck from fighting. He also said there was no DNA found on her body."
WSOC TV reported, "In their closing arguments on Friday morning, defense attorneys said Yarmolenko could have killed herself. 'She could reach up and place (the cord) on her neck,' Phillips said."
Viewers would surely have recoiled at the suggestion of suicide without also knowing more about Yarmolenko's past, something that could have been legally risky for 20/20 to cover without access to hard documentation of her previous suicide attempts and clinical treatment for anxiety and depression. Another limiting factor for 20/20 was that both Carver and his current lawyer refer to Yarmolenko's death as a murder, which reduced opportunities to bring out the suicide theory. It is this author's understanding that the suicide theory is legally useless to Carver post-conviction because it was made available to the jury during his trial. Appellate Attorney Gordon Widenhouse also presented the suicide theory to the North Carolina Supreme Court on Carver's behalf in January 2013. Were Carver to be granted a new trial, then the suicide theory would again be useful in legal proceedings.
Thanks to WBTV, The Charlotte Observer, WFAE 90.7 and ABC 20/20
While attempting to hold media accountable to accurate representation in reporting, it is easy to lose sight of how hard it can be with tight production schedules for media to craft stories entirely accurately. It took time, financial commitment and faith in the possibility of Carver's innocence for WBTV Charlotte, The Charlotte Observer, Charlotte's NPR source WFAE 90.7 and ABC 20/20 to spotlight this case in 2016. This author and others who care about the case are grateful for their efforts.