Horry County man spends years awaiting new trial after murder conviction overturned

Gary Wayne Bennett, when he was first arrested at age 36, and now at age 53. (Horry County Sheriff's Office)

Seventeen years ago, Eva Marie Martin was murdered in her home on Little River Road in Horry County.

Two men were arrested in connection with her death just a few months later.

However, one of those men still claims, after nearly 20 years, that he had nothing to do with what happened that deadly night.

Gary Wayne Bennett, now 53, said he put his faith in the legal system to prove his innocence, but he was convicted of murder in 2002 and sentenced to life without parole.

PART 2: Horry County man works to gain his freedom after murder conviction overturned

For 15 of those 17 years, Bennett was serving time at the South Carolina Department of Corrections for pleading guilty to first degree burglary, according to a SLED background check.

Since then, he has been waiting for the day he would walk out of jail a free man.

“On the 14th of August 2002, I was wrongfully convicted of a murder I had absolutely nothing to do with,” Bennett wrote in a letter to ABC 15 in January 2017.

Bennett wrote to ABC 15 in January hoping that we could report on his journey to clear his name, but his story started years earlier.

“I've wanted to tell my story, but it's hard to tell your story when you're convicted,” he said in an exclusive jail-house interview with ABC 15.

He is currently being held at J. Reuben Long Detention Center on murder charges.

In Bennett’s letters to ABC 15, he goes into detail about his case, his conviction and why he believes he was wrongfully convicted in the death of Eva Marie Martin.

“I was shocked. I remember [the officer] handing me the warrants for murder and, I’m like, as I am reading it and it stating that me and Andrew Lindsey went over to Little River Road. That never happened,” he said. “I had nothing to do with her death. I was home.”

Martin was killed on May 23, 2000.

Originally from Andrews, Martin, a mother of three, managed a Taco Bell in Surfside Beach.

Two years before her death, at age 40, she moved to Myrtle Beach alone after leaving an abusive relationship.

ABC 15 talked with Martin’s daughter, Heather Mitchell, who was in college at the time of her mother's murder.

“She was really starting to understand what it was like to live life and be happy,” Mitchell said. “So she was getting a fresh start.”

Mitchell said she remembers her mother as a caring, free spirit.

“She was like that mom where you’re like, ‘oh my God, you are such a nerd,’ because she was super smart but she was just so goofy,” she said.

Kelly Martin, Marie's son, said he and his mother were very close.

"I looked most like her compared to my other siblings who took after my father," he said. "The weekend that she was murdered, I was supposed to go to a Pelicans game with her."

Heather Mitchell said she remembers asking herself so many questions when she found out her mother was murdered.

“Why? Who would do that to her? Because she wasn’t a person that…she wasn’t somebody that you would expect like this to happen to,” she said.

Kelly Martin said his grandfather told him of his mother's death while they were out fishing.

"He said to me, 'Son, I have some news. I want you to be a man about it. They found somebody at the beach this morning and they think it is your mama. Someone may have killed your mama'," he said. "The world just kind of stopped at that time. I didn't realize then the ripple effect it would have. I mean, my kids will never know their grandma because of this."

Prosecutors at the time believed that Bennett and his co-defendant Andrew Lindsey went to Martin’s home and demanded the combination for the safe at Taco Bell.

When she refused, one of them slit Martin’s throat and then staged the scene to look like a robbery and sexual assault, according to prosecutors.

Bennett was charged with armed robbery and murder two months after Martin was killed.

He pleaded not guilty and his case went to trial.

Lindsey was offered a plea deal to testify against Bennett. He told the jury Bennett was behind the murder.

“I just sat back and relied on my innocence and relied on these people doing what they’re supposed to do, as far as prosecuting Lindsey and investigating the case,” Bennett said.

A jury found Bennett guilty in August 2002.

For nearly 12 years, Bennett begged the state to take a look at his case, saying his attorney hadn’t properly represented him.

“The outcome would have been different if he would have done what he was supposed to do, and if he would have presented the evidence that was presented to him then I would not have been found guilty. I would have been found innocent,” Bennett said.

Then, in 2014, his conviction was overturned.

He was granted a new trial through a process call Post Conviction Relief.

Gary Wayne Bennett realized then that he could be a free man.

“I’m walking out of this jail a free man. That’s going to happen. I know it is going to happen because I know I didn’t do this,” he said.

Bennett’s new attorney and the Horry County Solicitor’s Office will now have to treat the murder case as if Bennett was just charged.

In part 2 of Bennett's story, find out what he needs to do to become a free man again and what Martin’s daughter has to say about it.

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