A Gaston County jury convicted Mark Bradley Carver of first-degree murder this morning in the May 2008 slaying of UNC Charlotte student Irina Yarmolenko.
Superior Court Judge Timothy Kincaid sentenced the 42-year-old defendant to life in prison without parole, capping a six-day trial that included no witnesses to the killing and no witnesses placing Carver at the crime scene.
After roughly six hours of deliberation, the jury of six men and six women returned to the courtroom just before noon today to announce its verdict, drawing gasps from Carver's supporters and gratitude from Yarmolenko's family.
Yarmolenko's brother, Pavel, thanked the jury and court officials their work - and for justice.
"It was the right thing to do," he said. "I have incredible confidence in our judicial system."
He then turned to defendant and said angrily: "As for Mark Carver, I don't know what to say...We can't talk about what happened. It's hard for us to go on like this, all thanks to you and your cousin."
More than a dozen family members and friends supporting Carver reacted to the verdict with sobs and gasps.
Leslie Sellars called the verdict "a travesty of justice." She's a family friend of Carver's and his cousin Neal Cassada of Mount Holly, who was also charged in the killing.
"These people didn't do it," Sellars said. "The murderer is still on the loose."
Carver's attorney Brent Ratchford said he was "floored" by the verdict.
"The jury is wrong," he said, "flat out wrong. They put an innocent man in jail today."
The jury foreman declined to discuss deliberations as he left the courthouse Monday.
Yarmolenko, a 20-year-old sophomore, was found strangled near her car on an overgrown embankment along the Catawba River. Wrapped around her neck was a bungee cord, a ribbon and a drawstring from her sweatshirt.
Carver did not testify, and his defense attorneys did not present any evidence.
Prosecutors had presented evidence that Carver's DNA was found on Yarmolenko's car. Carver had repeatedly claimed that he never saw or had any contact with Yarmolenko.
During closing arguments on Friday, prosecutor Bill Stetzer offered the first theory on a motive for Yarmolenko's killing.
Stetzer told the jury he believes Yarmolenko was shooting photographs along the river and photographed something Carver and his cousin didn't want photographed. So, he said, the two men attacked and killed her.
Yarmolenko's camera was introduced as evidence, but it did not contain any film. But the camera's photo counter showed that two pictures had been taken. Prosecutors alleged that Carver and his cousin removed the film.
But defense attorney David Phillips countered that no solid evidence linked Carver to Yarmolenko or the murder. He didn't explain why Carver's DNA was on her car.
Phillips stood before the jurors and held up the blue ribbon that was found around Yarmolenko's neck and asked how Carver's DNA, if he was guilty, could not have been found on the ribbon or any of the other murder weapons.
Carver's other attorney, Brent Ratchford, reminded jurors of testimony from a State Bureau of Investigation agent that showed unidentified DNA was found on the ribbon and bungee cord, but it did not match Carver - suggesting that someone else killed Yarmolenko.
Carver was arrested along with his cousin, Cassada, in December 2008 and charged with first-degree murder. Cassada, 54, died in October 2010 of apparent natural causes one day before his trial.