WBTV Investigates: Pardoned by public opinion

Pardoned by Public Opinion
Published: Feb. 2, 2016 at 6:40 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 8, 2016 at 11:46 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - They were crimes that happened years ago. They were in places few had any connection to, with victims most did not know. Yet, through word of mouth millions across the country popped on Netflix on our TV, or slipped in our earbuds after downloading a podcast and we were hooked. "Serial" and "Making a Murderer" were modern day 'who done its,' calling into question whether prosecutors truly got their man.

Colin Miller, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, was told by a friend to listen to "Serial."

"Imediately, like so many other people it caught my attention," said Colin Miller. "I felt compelled to investigate and write about it."

Miller already had a blog. His audience was mostly his students and his colleagues. "Serial" and the case of Adnan Syed changed everything. His writings and his own investigation led to him teaming up with attorneys working Syed's appeal. Together they started their own spin-off podcast called "Undisclosed." It continued digging into the case of the Baltimore teen convicted of killing his former high school sweetheart back in 1999.

"Every single step of the way, as you looked at it more, there more mysteries, there were more legal issues and just more questions about what happened," said Miller.

But the podcasts were also doing something else. They were attracting huge audiences who were suddenly interested in the minutia of the legal system. We no longer had a handful of professional investigators looking into the case, we had millions of amateur sleuths on the case.

"Serial, for the first time it was this interactive experience," said Miller.  "People had access online to see the court documents and they were able to interact with other people and develop these theories, so I think it really has changed the game."

One of those crowd-sourcing investigators is Valerie. She asked to keep her last name private, but her work certainly isn't.

"I'm a fashion designer, by trade, so this is very unusual for me," said Valerie.

She lives in Texas, a thousand miles away from the banks of the Catawba River in Gaston County. It's where a college co-ed by the name of Ira Yarmolenko was found strangled in 2008.


"There were so many little pieces of evidence that just didn't fit together," said Valerie.

Two cousins, fishing nearby, were accused. Neal Cassada died in custody, right before his trial was to begin. Mark Carver was convicted. Valerie stumbled upon the case by accident when her parents were watching a re-telling of the case on Dateline NBC.

"I happened to be passing through and it caught my attention. I sat down and watched the rest of the program," said Valerie. "Immediately when I got done, I had a feeling that these two fisherman had to be innocent."

She hopped online and began doing her own research. She connected with others around the country who also had questions about the case. Valerie helped launch a website dedicated to freeing Mark Carver.

"I don't even get interested in murder mysteries or anything like that," said Valerie. "It was not something that I just had time to do, or was really all that interested to do, it was more of a compelling feeling that I had to do this. There's an innocent man in prison in North Carolina."

Locke Bell, Gaston County's District Attorney says they got the right man.

"I have no doubt whatsoever that Mark Carver is guilty of first degree murder," said Bell. "There's several thousand hours of (investigative work) looking at every single person, and every thing kept coming back to them."

Investigators had the suspects DNA on the outside of Yarmolenko's car. A convincing piece of evidence for the jury.

Their DNA was on the car and they said they had never been around the car," said Bell. "They said they'd never been around her."

But there were some puzzling parts of the case as well. Starting with why? Why did they do it? Random, purely happenstance killings, are extremely rare.

"I can't give you a motive. We don't know. I can speculate and guess, but in prosecuting somebody for murder that law does not require that we get into the defendant's head and figure out why they did it. To me, it was just pure meanness."

There were also questions about a lack of DNA evidence. None from the suspects was found on Yarmolenko.

Valerie says the DNA investigators did find, was partial profile. She claims it could have been transferred by another person.

"There has never been another case in North Carolina where the only piece of evidence used to bring about a conviction was DNA that could have been transferred," said Valerie. "There were no fingerprints, no footprints, no other evidence at all to back up the validity of the DNA."

"He was given a fair trial, the North Carolina Supreme Court said he got a fair trial," said Bell.

Valerie is actually convinced no crime was committed at all. She thinks Yarmolenko, sadly, took her own life. Valerie went as far as traveling, on her own, to the scene to act out and video tape, how a person could take their own life by strangulation.

"The prosecution tried to say there was no way she could have possibly tied all these ligatures herself," said Valerie. "They said she couldn't have reached the bungee cord around the back of her neck, but obviously in the reenactment, it was very easy to do that."

District Attorney Bell isn't buying it.

"It couldn't have happened that way." said Bell. "I think they (amateur investigators) need to get a life."

Attorney Chris Mumma doesn't think it was a suicide either, but she also doesn't think Carver killed Yarmolenko.

"I believe there is evidence that will definitively prove his innocence," said Mumma.

Mumma works for the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, a non-profit whose mission is to free the wrongly convicted.

"It's not about righting the wrong for the person who is in prison, but righting the wrong for the victim who never received justice," said Mumma. "(Law Enforcement doesn't see it that way) when I show up. They think I want all the guilty people out of prison and that is not what we are trying to do."

As for the Carver case, Mumma, wouldn't give a lot of specifics while her staff investigates, but said she plans to meet with prosecutors soon to talk about the case.

"I actually think the DNA wasn't challenged very well at trial and that is one of the things we are looking at is how accurate was the DNA evidence and going deep into the test results."

Mumma has been working cases like Carver's for 16 years and she has noticed a spike in the public's interest since "Serial" and "Making a Murderer." She's listened and watched the shows herself.

"It's good for justice if the system reacts appropriately," said Mumma.

Some of her high profile successes have led to reforms in North Carolina's justice system. The state has changed how suspect line-ups are presented. Interrogations are also now recorded. As for those citizen investigators, she thinks they have a place as well.

"There are plenty of people who think they have the answer to the case," said Mumma."I think there are a lot of people out there who do have answers for crimes that have been committed, who do have information that would help somebody who is in prison and is innocent."

Law professor Miller thinks all the attention is good for the justice system because it has educated the public.

"It's my favorite thing about the podcast and the blog is people say I was called to jury duty, they started talking about bail, the grand jury and I understood this basic vocabulary and it helped me understand the case more."

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