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'Death By the River' Series and the Criminal Justice System

 
April 12, 2016— from WFAE 90.7 Charlotte's NPR News Source
 
In America, you are presumed innocent until convicted, but once convicted you are presumed to have committed the crime.  But some recent investigations have shown that isn't always the case.  Mark Carver is five years into a life sentence for murder. Recently, The Charlotte Observer has been examining the evidence used to convict Carver, who insists he's innocent.
 
Charlotte Talks on WFAE conducted a radio interview of Elizabeth Leland and Gary Schwab, of The Charlotte Observer, and Chris Mumma, the Executive Director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence.
 
Listen to the radio broadcast here.  The discussion of Mark Carver's case begins at the 7:49 mark.

 

Death by the river: Is Mark Carver a cold-blooded killer?  Or an innocent man?

 
April 8, 2016— from The Charlotte Observer
 
When I first met Chris Mumma of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence a year ago, she had only recently begun her investigation into Mark Carver's conviction and wouldn't say whether she believed he is innocent.
 
Now she feels certain.
 
She believes Carver was fishing when Ira Yarmolenko died.  She believes he had nothing to do with her death and that he told the truth when he said he did not touch her car.  And, she believes "there is evidence that will definitively prove his innocence."
 
Read the sixth part of the series here.

 

Death by the river: The defense Mark Carver never got

 
April 7, 2016— from The Charlotte Observer
 
When Mark Carver's attorneys announced they would present no evidence and call no witnesses, a stunned silence settled over the Gaston County courtroom.
. . .
 
Carver's attorneys said they thought the state's case was so weak, they didn't need to counter with their own evidence and witnesses.
 
Read the fifth part of the series here.

 

Death by the river: At trial, a detective's testimony changes everything

 
April 6, 2016— from The Charlotte Observer
 
Even after Mark Carver was charged, prosecutors deliberated about whether to try the case.
 
The evidence was so weak, they hesitated to commit.
 
Investigators found none of Carver's or Neal Cassada's fingerprints on Ira Yarmolenko's car, none of their DNA on the bindings around her neck or on scrapings taken from beneath her fingernails.
 
Read the fourth part of the series here.

 

Death by the river: A break in the case

 
April 5, 2016— from The Charlotte Observer
 
Over and over, Mark Carver and Neal Cassada insisted they never saw Ira Yarmolenko or her car.  They told their families.  They told police.  Carver told his preacher.
 
Read the third part of the series here.

 

Death by the river: Homicide ruling sends police in search of a killer

 
April 4, 2016— from The Charlotte Observer
 
At the county courthouse in Gastonia, I expect to find a huge file in the case of North Carolina v. Mark Bradley Carver.  A clerk hands me a manila folder that is at most an inch thick, with routine legal motions and little else of interest.
 
Like the file, I soon discover, the evidence against Carver was slim.
 
Read the second part of the series here.

 

Death by the river: The fisherman's defense

 
April 3, 2016— from The Charlotte Observer
 
Irina Yarmolenko was 20, a sophomore at UNC Charlotte, finishing up the semester and planning to transfer to UNC-Chapel Hill in the fall.  On the morning of her death, Monday, May 5, 2008, she dropped off a carload  of belongings at Goodwill and said her goodbyes at a coffee shop where she worked near the university.
 
Why she ended up dead two hours later, on a remote riverbank west of Charlotte, no one has ever been able to say for sure.
 
A Gaston County man, who was fishing nearby, was convicted in 2011 of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
 
But Mark Carver, now 47, insists he didn't kill Ira Yarmolenko.
 
Read the first part of the series here.

 

The Fisherman's Defense: Revisiting the Yarmolenko Case

 
March 31, 2016— from The Charlotte Observer
 
Follow The Charlotte Observer's series on Mark Carver who is currently represented by the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence.
 
Ira Yarmolenko, a 20-year-old UNC Charlotte student, is strangled on the banks of the Catawba River.  Mark Carver is convicted of her murder.  Five years after the trial, questions about the case linger.  Read The Charlotte Observer's explanation of the case in a six-part series by Elizabeth Leland beginning Sunday.
 
Watch the video here.

 

Hair Analysis 'Should Be Abolished,' Says Wrongly Incarcerated Man

 
August 13, 2015— from Al Jazeera America
 
In 1978 Joseph Sledge was sentenced to a North Carolina prison for the murder of two women, Josephine and Aileen Davis, a mother and daughter who were stabbed to death two years earlier.  This past January, he was set free when new DNA evidence contradicted FBI hair analysis that pinpointed Sledge as the assailant.
 
For decades, the FBI relied on matching characteristics of hair under a microscope to connect suspects to crimes, most often violent ones.  But the introduction of DNA-based techniques suggest that the science the government labs relied on was inexact, at best, and, at worst, psuedo-science.
 
In the course of Sledge's appeal, led by attorney Christine Mumma of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, the testimony connecting Sledge's hair to one found at the scene of the crime was invalidated.  And after 37 years in jail, Sledge became a free man.
 
Fault Lines sat down with Sledge in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia, to discuss his extraordinary story and the evidence that led to his conviction.
 
Read the full article here.

 

The FBI's Flawed Forensics History

 
April 21, 2015— from Charlotte Observer
 
In a chilling admission last week, the FBI and Justice Department acknolwedged that examiners in an elite FBI microscopic hair comparison unit gave flawed testimony in more than 95 percent of trials over approximately two decades before 2000.
 
What's more chilling is what we don't yet know about additional cases across the country, including North Carolina.
 
The Washington Post reports that more than 200 trials have been examined thus far in which the elite forensic unit overstated the link between hair found at a crime scene and a defendant's hair.  In cases where such testimony was given, 32 defendants were sentenced to death, and 14 were executed or have died in prison.  At least 1,200 cases are still awaiting examination.
 
Tucked away at the bottom of the Post's report is another disturbing note: These same FBI examiners taught 500 to 1,000 state and local crime analysts to give microscopic hair comparison testimony in the same ways.  That could affect more cases in North Carolina and throughout the United States.
 
North Carolina, at least, is already taking steps to examine the impact.  The state is one of just a few across the country that already has investigated cases involving the FBI forensics unit.  Thus far, there are just three FBI cases involving North Carolina defendants, probably because the State Bureau of Investigation did its own hair analysis in state cases.
 
"Beginning in 2013 when these issues with the FBI lab came to light, the North Carolina State Crime Lab reviewed all relevant cases, and legal counsel for the State Crime Lab also worked with the NC Center on Actual Innocence to provide information on the cases for its review," Noelle Talley, spokesperson for the N.C. Department of Justice, told the editorial board Monday.
 
Now the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence is reviewing 4,200 hair examinations conducted prior to the advent of DNA testing to determine if there was misleading testimony in trials.  The Center's executive director, Chris Mumma, told the editorial board Monday that the probe, which has the blessing of the SBI, will include any cases involving SBI examiners trained in testimony by the FBI.
 
Mumma says the Center has narrowed its probe to 900 state cases in which someone was convicted and hair testimony was given.  The Center will look at those cases to see if the testimony was misleading, and what role is played in the eventual conviction.
 
Read the full article here.

 

Joseph Sledge's Case to Be Heard by Three-Judge Panel

 
January 21, 2015
 
After proclaiming his innocence for nearly 38 years, Joseph Sledge will finally have the chance to clear his name.
 
At 10:00 a.m., on January 23, 2015, at the Columbus County Courthouse, the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence (Center) will represent Sledge before a three-judge panel comprised of the Honorable Thomas H. Lock, the Honorable Anna Mills Wagoner, and the Honorable Kevin Bridges.  The panel holds the power to exonerate Sledge.
 
Sledge has served almost 37 years in prison for the 1976 murders of Josephine and Aileen Davis, but has never wavered from his claim of innocence.  Althought he had no history of violence, Sledge became a suspect after he escaped from a nearby minimum security prison the day before the murders based on his belief that another inmate was going to harm him.  At the time he had less than one year left to serve for misdemeanor convictions for stealing a box of clothing from a department store.
 
The Center, which investigates credible claims of innocence on behalf of North Carolina inmates, worked tirelessly on Sledge's behalf for ten years, but was repeatedly told by law enforcement and other agencies that they were unable to locate some of the critical evidence from the case.  In 2009, DNA testing of the evidence that was located revealed that male DNA obtained from the victims' clothing did not match Sledge.  Nearly three years later, in 2012, the foreign hairs collected from the body of one victim and admitted into evidence at trial in 1978 confirmed the hairs, determined during the original investigation to belong to the perpetrator, did not come from Sledge.  In 2013, the Center referred Sledge's case to the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission with a strong belief that physical evidence and investigative files could be located through the Commission's statutory authority to conduct its own search.  That belief was substantiated through the Commission's resulting investigation.  No physical evidence recovered from the crime scene has ever connected Sledge to the murders.  Sledge has been excluded as the source from all of the DNA and fingerprint evidence, including the bloody palmprints left by the perpetrator, collected at the crime scene.
 
The N.C. Center on Actual Innocence would like to thank its private donors and the foundations that make its non-profit work possible: Z Smith Reynolds Foundation, A.J. Fletcher Foundation, Park Foundation, NC Bar Association Foundation, and NC IOLTA.

 

Chris Mumma Discusses the Center and Recent Wrongful Convictions in North Carolina

 
November 24, 2014— from NC Policy Watch
 
Chris Mumma recently discussed the work of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence and recent wrongful convictions in North Carolina.
 
Listen to the discussion here.

 

N.C. Policy Watch: A 36 Year Wait for Justice

 
December 3, 2014— from NC Policy Watch
 
NC Policy Watch's courts and law reporter Sharon McCloskey previews the case of Joseph Sledge, who has spent half of his life behind bars for a double murder in Bladen County that he maintains he never committed.
 
DNA Testing ruled out Sledge as the murderer in 2012.
 
Watch to the discussion here.

 

IACP: Police Chiefs Can Take Lead Role in Preventing Wrongful Convictions

 
December 3, 2013— from The Crime Report
 
A "culture of openness to new information from reliable sources" is a key to reducing the problem of wrongful convictions in American criminal justice, the International Association of Chiefs of Police said today.
 
The IACP issued a federally-funded report, announced in conjunction with The Innocence Project, concluding that "law enforcement can take a lead role in preventing and reducing wrongful convictions by eliminating the arrest of the wrong person."  The report includes 30 recommendations for dealing with the problem.
 
The new report was based on a Wrongful Conviction Summit held last year in which the IACP assembled 75 experts to dissect the wrongful conviction problem.  The project was supported by the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Justice Programs.
 
Read more here.
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