The jury never questioned whether Mark Carver was guilty in the 2008 killing of UNC Charlotte student Irina Yarmolenko, one juror told the Observer on Monday.
The jury convicted Carver of first-degree murder after deliberating about six hours, a discussion that mostly centered on whether the killing was premeditated.
"I didn't see anything thin about the evidence at all," said juror Warren Newsom. "The evidence weighed against Mr. Carver. I feel very comfortable about the verdict. It's the only one I could come to."
Carver, 42, sat quietly as the clerk read the verdict, drawing gasps then sobs from his family and friends in the courtroom. Carver declined to speak on his own behalf before Superior Court Judge Timothy Kincaid sentenced him to life in prison without parole.
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Yarmolenko, a 20-year-old sophomore, was found strangled near her car on an overgrown embankment along the Catawba River. Wrapped around her neck were a bungee cord, a ribbon and a drawstring from her sweatshirt. She had reportedly gone to the river to shoot photos of kayakers that day in May 2008, when Carver said he was fishing in the area.
The six-day trial revealed that Carver's DNA had been found on Yarmolenko's car but not on her body or on the bindings used to kill her. In the two days of testimony, prosecutors brought no witnesses to the killing and little discussion of any motive until suggesting during closing arguments that Yarmolenko may have photographed something Carver didn't want on film.
"This was one of the toughest cases I've ever worked," prosecutor Bill Stetzer told the Observer. "The DNA evidence conclusively placed him at the scene not far from the victim's body. But his DNA was not found on the murder weapons. That's what made it challenging."
"But we present the evidence we have," Stetzer said, "not the evidence we wish we had."
Carver's attorney Brent Ratchford countered: "The jury is wrong - flat-out wrong. They put an innocent man in jail today."
After the verdict was read, Yarmolenko's brother, Pavel, thanked the jury and investigators for their work. He told the court his family is still struggling with what happened to his sister, but felt justice had been done.
"As for Mark Carver, I don't know what to say..." Yarmolenko told the court. "It's hard for us to go on like this, all thanks to you and your cousin."
Carver and his cousin, Neal Cassada of Mount Holly, were charged seven months after the killing. But Cassada, 54, died last year of natural causes on the eve of his trial.
Carver's supporters questioned the verdict.
His father, Kyle, said the family didn't understand "how they got a conviction off a little bitty DNA... They've got the wrong person."
Family friend Leslie Sellars called the verdict "a travesty," saying there were too many holes in the case.
"These people didn't do it," she said. "The murderer is still on the loose."
But juror Newsom said he was convinced that Carver and his cousin had worked together to kill Yarmolenko and cover up her death.
He said he was swayed by Carver's signed statement that he and his cousin never saw Yarmolenko or her car, and yet their DNA proved they had touched her blue Saturn, found crashed near the river.
Newsom also recounted how Carver described Yarmolenko's height to investigators by raising his hand to his nose - suggesting that Carver had seen her up close. Carver's attorneys argued during trial that he had learned her height from TV news accounts.
Newsom concluded that Yarmolenko's wounds showed "there had to be one person holding her down and the other putting the cords around her neck."
"Two people were there, and two people lied about what happened," he said. "To me, there's no way it wasn't them who killed her."
Carver and Cassada's skin cells were found on both sides of Yarmolenko's car, which prosecutor Stetzer told the jury showed they had tried to push the car into the river. When the car got stuck on a stump, he said, the two men put her body in the water - likely washing away any DNA they left behind. Stetzer said the men then fished her out because the body didn't sink.
Gaston District Attorney Locke Bell said Monday that Carver had been involved in another violent incident. He was arrested in 2007 for shooting his son, according to Bell and court records. Bell's office dismissed the charge, he said, because the son wouldn't cooperate.
"If you will shoot your son, it doesn't take much to set you off," Bell said.
Carver's father called the shooting an accident and said his grandson, who is about 20, is OK.
Juror Newsom said the jury's discussion went beyond the DNA evidence.
"You take everything into consideration and look at the picture it paints. The motive is purely a matter of speculation. I don't know what they had in mind. I think it was a crime of opportunity."