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

Horry County man works to be free after murder conviction overturned (WPDE)

One Horry County man is working to earn his freedom after he says he was convicted of a murder he didn't commit.

Gary Wayne Bennett has been working to get out of jail for many years. In 2002, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole. But, he says he didn't commit that crime.

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.

Police arrested Bennett in July 2000 and charged him with the murder of Eva Marie Martin, a friend of his girlfriend.

Two years later, a jury found Bennett guilty after his friend and co-defendant was offered a plea deal to testify against him.

“He told a story about me [and] they went with it,” he said.

Now, Bennett has a chance to walk out of jail.

“I know I’m going to [get out]. There’s no doubt in my mind,” he said.

But, if you tell that to Martin’s daughter and son, Heather Mitchell and Kelly Martin, they won't believe you.

“I want him to know that I am here and that I will do whatever it takes to make sure that he stays where he is,” she said.

Mitchell said she believes in her heart and soul that Bennett killed her mother. She was in the courtroom in 2002 when the jury read Bennett’s guilty verdict.

“It is kind of like you’re underwater and then, when they finally say they find him guilty, it is almost like you can take this deep breath,” said Mitchell.

Kelly Martin, who was 17 at the time of his mother’s death, said, when the jury read the guilty verdict, he felt like justice was served.

“The right thing had been done,” he said. “But, there is no such thing as closure. My brain has learned to deal with my mom being gone, but my heart never has.”

Now, Mitchell said she spends every day with the aching reminder of her family’s tragedy, as Bennett fights to get out.

“It is almost like a sinking feeling, like you thought everything was over,” she said.

Kelly Martin said he knows Bennett is guilty.

“In my heart of hearts, I would have convicted him based on the evidence at the trial,” he said. “He got what he deserved and he deserves to stay in jail.”

Bennett started his plea with the court in 2008. He started his post-conviction relief process (PCR).

Under, PCR, Bennett had to prove there was some type of flaw during his trial. He said that his trial lawyer inadequately represented him.

It took four years for his PCR application to go through and for him to be assigned an attorney.

“I knew this was going to be a long process,” he said. “I guess I’m patient.”

Another two years were spent sitting in prison, waiting.

On June 19, 2014, the answer he’d wanted for days came--Bennett had a hearing to prove his claims.

His previous attorney was called to the stand and testified about his role during Bennett's murder trial in 2002.

According court documents of the judge's ruling from Bennett's PCR hearing, Bennett's trial attorney admitted fault during the murder trial.

“I was relieved when I left there, I felt good,” he said. "I went back to the prison and I told everybody. I said, ‘I’m going home. I’m going home.’”

He still holds onto the paperwork granting him a new trial.

“I looked and the first thing I see is here, right here, this is what I saw…they overturned my conviction,” he said.

Last August, Bennett had his first chance to get out of jail with a bond hearing. But, a judge ordered him to stay in jail because he was a flight risk.

Bennett reached out to ABC15 in January asking us to report on his journey in clearing his name.

It is now the job of the 15th Circuit Assistant Solicitor Josh Holford to prepare a case that will keep Bennett behind bars. The case will be built by piecing together what Holford says is one of the oldest cases in the office.

“In this case, our lead detective is deceased. The prosecutor who convicted him is deceased. So, that creates problems,” he said. “That time lapse creates problems.”

Attorney Ralph Wilson Jr. is representing Bennett for his second trial. He believes time and evidence will play in Bennett’s favor.

“I don’t think there’s a strong case against him now, or then,” Wilson Jr. said. “I think the evidence at the time was weak, at best, and I think there were some problems with testimony during the first trial that I think probably shouldn’t have come up.”

Meanwhile, Eva Marie Martin’s family is putting their faith in the system for a second time.

"Of course, we hope for justice, but if it doesn’t happen, I can’t let it consume me because then he wins. He wins and then that’s not going to happen,” Mitchell said.

Bennett holds onto hope that the same system that put him away, will allow him to be a free man once again.

“I always knew this day was going to come,” he said. “I will walk out of this jail a free man, I know I’m going to,” he said.

If Bennett is found guilty again, his sentence will start from day one. So, the 6,160 days he has already served will no longer count.

Bennett’s attorney said he isn’t sure when the case will head to trial.

ABC15 reached out to Bennett’s original trial attorney, Johnny Gardner. He responded saying, “Since this matter is pending in court, it would not be appropriate for me to make any comments about it.”

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

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