At age 57, Gary Wayne Bennett doesn’t think about a future that involves a wife and kids. After spending nearly 20 years in prison for a crime he was acquitted of in October, he has simpler goals.
“When I get my own place and I get settled, I’m going to get a cat,” he said recently. “That’ll be my family. Once I get all the other stuff out of the way, that might be something that’s important to me. But right now, I have to look out for me and try to get stable and independent.”
For Bennett, simple is good. It’s been a challenge just learning how to live in a world that is vastly different from the one he knew before he was incarcerated. In some ways, it’s frightening. Other times, he’s in a state of wonder.
When he walked out of the J. Reuben Long Detention Center after his acquittal, he wanted to visit an IHOP.
“For four-and-a-half years, I sat in the county jail and I watched a lot of commercials. The IHOP commercials come on quite a bit,” Bennett said. “Guys would be making comments about food, like, ‘Hey, look at those waffles with the blueberries on top with the cream,’ and I would ask if they ever had them before. And they would say, ‘Yeah, I had the pancakes with pineapples on them and it’s really, really good.’ They kept telling me that I couldn’t lose with IHOP.”
The choice surprised his attorney, Amy Lawrence.
“I had this vision we were going to go the Ruth’s Chris patio and we ended up going to IHOP,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence spent years gathering evidence and preparing for Bennett’s second trial after he was initially convicted for Eva Marie Martin’s May 2000 murder.
Bennet won a retrial in 2014 after successfully arguing that he had ineffective counsel when he was convicted in 2002. On the advice of a fellow inmate, he began sending letters to Lawrence in 2017, arguing his innocence, and convinced her to represent him.
On Oct. 29, a jury found Bennett not guilty, and for the first time in two decades, he was free to choose where his next meal came from.
He chose the IHOP sampler, which includes two eggs, two hickory-smoked bacon strips, two pork sausage links, two thick-cut pieces of ham, golden hash browns and two buttermilk pancakes.
“I’m a simple guy,” Bennett said. “[Lawrence’s husband] Justin Lovely was looking at me, asking if that’s all I wanted, and he offered me a piece of his ham and cheese omelet.”
The fight for freedom
Throughout his first trial and 20 years of incarceration, Bennett maintained that he wasn’t guilty, and used his time in prison to educate himself on wrongful convictions.
After winning a second trial, Bennett began searching for another attorney to fight for his freedom instead of taking the advice of his previous counsel and pleading guilty in return for a punishment of time already served.
“I would rather go back to jail an innocent man than go free as a fraud,” he said.
After sending Lawrence around a half-dozen letters, Bennett met with her and Lovely, who is also her legal partner. They were convinced by his story and agreed to take the case.
During the trial, Lawrence’s team pointed out inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case and problems with how police handled the initial investigation into Martin’s murder.
A key piece of evidence that the prosecution used was a letter from Adam Weissman, one of Bennett’s cellmates. Weissman wrote in an Aug. 22, 2000, letter that Bennett had told him details of Martin’s murder. But jail records showed Weismann and Bennett didn’t cross paths until Aug. 30, casting a shadow of doubt over the letter’s accuracy.
During the trial, Bennett’s attorneys pointed out that only Martin’s DNA was ever tested, ruling out any possibility that DNA evidence could prove Bennett was guilty. They also noted that investigators overlooked a box cutter and scissors found at the crime scene where Martin’s throat was slashed. Lawrence used the lack of DNA evidence and the scissors to question whether the initial police investigation was handled properly.
The jury finally started deliberations on Oct. 28. They met for nearly six hours that day, asking to see more testimony at one point. The jurors deliberated again the next day, and came back with the decision: Bennett could go free.
Despite the lost years, Bennett doesn’t see himself as any different from the man who went to prison.
“I am basically the same person I am now,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve changed really. I get along with everybody. It doesn’t matter what race you are, it doesn’t matter where you are in society. You can be on welfare. You can be someone that makes six figures a year. I treat everybody the same. I think the Navy did that to me. I found a way to deal with people and be likable. I’ve never had enemies. I have never been in a fight before. That’s the God honest truth. I’ve never been in a “real“ fight. Maybe a little tussle when I was in high school or something but never a toe-to-toe, blow to blow, blood flying, I’ve never given anyone a bloody nose before. I’ve never hurt anyone before. I’m the same person. That’s why I got through prison for 15 years because I’m not a violent person. I’m going to resolve problems by talking it out or just ignoring it.”
A strange new world
Bennett may see himself as unchanged, but the world wasn’t waiting for him while he was locked up, and futuristic fantasies became present-day realities.
Electric cars now run on the roads, the U.S. elected its first Black president and gay marriage became legal across the country.
The internet, which during Bennett’s pre-jail years was a slow-loading connective matrix that didn’t work while the phone was off the hook, is now so fast and ubiquitous that modern society can’t function without it. The standard landlines that once limited web use are quickly going out of style.
Most of the world’s collective knowledge is available in small devices the size of calculators. Ask it a question and it gives you an answer.
Bennett’s first challenge after prison? Shopping.
While getting new clothes at Wal-Mart, Bennett used a self-checkout system. He said the process was “intimidating;” the same way he describes other new gadgets that have become an ever-present part of modern living during the time when a third of his own life was lost.
“What’s intimidating is to see kids that are 10 and 12 years old, they’ll pick up a cell phone and they’ll go right to what they’re looking for,” Bennett said. “I have no idea. There are so many things that I don’t know.”
After his release, Bennett’s lawyers put him up in a hotel room on the north end of Myrtle Beach’s Ocean Boulevard. But he had trouble sleeping the first several nights.
“He called me a few times at like three in the morning in the first three, four days after he got out, crying because the bed was so soft,” Lawrence said.
The mattress was “the most comfortable I ever slept on,” Bennett added.
For the most part, Bennett keeps to himself. He spends his time in his hotel room, learning to navigate his new LG Android smartphone that he uses primarily for talk and text.
“I go to Google and check some things. I check the weather on Google, too,” Bennett said, adding that he also checks the NFL and college football scores. “I’m not up on how to use these things, but I am learning every day.”
Occasionally, Bennett will turn on the TV and watch crime shows like “Dateline” and “20/20.” One night, he turned the television on to HLN and “Forensic Files” was on.
“I solved every case on ‘Forensic Files’ that night, I think they had about 20 of them,” Bennett said.
He often thinks about the years of his life that he spent behind bars.
“I can’t get out there now and have a career and look for retirement as a senior citizen,” he said, adding that he plans to push for legislative changes to help the wrongfully convicted. “What am I going to do at 57 years old? I could’ve been working for Amazon for 20 something years and retire and have a retirement. But what do I do now?
Bennett, who doesn’t have a valid driver’s license, said he doesn’t go out much because he’s scared.
“I don’t want to be out there all by myself,” Bennett said. “I don’t know anyone.”
On the rare chance that Bennett does make his way out in the community, he uses a driver to shuttle him around.
But he also uses a putter. And a nine iron. Bennett, who has a passion for golf, has been to a few driving ranges in the area since his exoneration, usually Cane Patch in Myrtle Beach.
Although Bennet doesn’t go out much, he’s had his fair share of fast food since he’s been out.
“I’ve been to them all,” he said. “I’ve been to Subway, McDonald’s, Zaxby’s.”
Bennett has sampled a few newer places in the area, including McAlister’s Deli and Café Gelato. Bennett said that while he was on trial, his legal team brought him a BLT from Café Gelato. When he bit into the sandwich, it was the first time he’d tasted bacon in almost 20 years. It made Bennett cry.
“It’s a reality check is what it is,” Bennett said. “It comes and it slaps you in the face. Like look here Gary, look at this BLT sandwich. I have held anything like this in my hands in 20 years. I didn’t say 20 months. I didn’t say 20 weeks. I said 20 years. I was just sitting there eating it and saying that the sandwich is just unbelievable. To the average person, they’d gobble the sandwich down and not even appreciate it. To go about their business rest of day and then think about what they’re going to have for dinner. Me? I am sitting here in this holding cell by myself. I got the sandwich in front of me and I’m looking at it like I haven’t seen something like this in 20 years. As I was trying to eat it I’m like wow, unbelievable. I’m probably going to remember that for the rest of my life and yet it’s insignificant to other people. It wasn’t to me and all it was was a BLT sandwich.”
As the year nears its end, Bennett has mixed feelings about his new normal and getting into a routine, which reminds him of the structured life of a prison inmate. But he wants to be independent without relying heavily on others.
“It bothers me to be a burden on other people. I don’t like that,” Bennett said. “I was in the Navy for eight years. I worked my whole life, so I want to be independent. I want to get up in the morning, go to work, get my driver’s license. I want to have my own vehicle, my own place.”
Bennett has his sights set on either a Dodge Challenger or Dodge Charger, although their speed may be a bit much for him.
“I don’t really need to be driving fast at 57 years old,” Bennett chuckled.
While Lawrence said she has many contacts who could help Bennett get a job, he is unsure of what he can do, given that so much has changed since he went to prison. Bennett recalled a time when he was in The Lovely Law Firm and was mystified when trying to answer the phone.
“A line is ringing and I’m looking down at the phone like, ‘What button do you push to answer it?’” Bennett said. “If I was in an office and they said ‘Gary, answer the phone,’ it would be no problem, right? All these phones have these buttons now where you can transfer calls. It’s just crazy. I don’t know what I would do. I really don’t.”
Lawrence is working to get Bennett a social security card so he can get a driver’s license to replace the one he got in 1999. He’ll also be eligible for assistance from the Veterans Affairs office to obtain housing for 180 days while he works to get back on his feet.
Bennett added that the Veterans Affairs office will help him with some much-needed medical care. Bennett remembers receiving medical attention twice in the past 20 years. The first was when he got treatment for a varicose vein that burst in late 2019, and the second was in October when he got glasses while waiting for his retrial.
Home for the holidays
On Nov. 12, Bennett flew up to Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, to see his aunt and uncle.
Going through TSA security in a post 9/11 world with a driver’s license that expired in 2003 and no social security card caused a bit of difficulty for Bennett, who compared the background searches and pat-downs to being back in prison. Eventually, he was allowed on the plane.
Since arriving in Pennsylvania, Bennett has been focusing a lot on the links.
“My schedule is I play golf, I play golf, and I play some golf,” he said.
The game drove Bennett to relocate to the Grand Strand from Candor, New York, in 1999.
He hoped to one day quality for the Senior PGA Tour, but those lost years put an end to that dream. Now, he just plays for fun, and has been hitting the links with his uncle whenever the weather allows.
Bennett is cherishing all the time he has with his family. This year is his first family holiday in 20 years, and he’s spending the season with the only loved ones he has left after losing both parents and his sister while he was in prison
Until her passing in 2014, Bennett’s mother urged him to stay positive and ensured that he would be free. “My mom would always say, ‘Gary, the truth is going to come out. Just hold on, the truth is going to come out,’” Bennett said, pausing to hold back tears. “I would reassure her and she would reassure me.”
This holiday season, Bennett is enjoying the pleasures of homecooked meals prepared by his aunt Joyce. While Bennett said he missed that kind of meal during his sentence, it’s not really helping in another goal of his: losing weight.
“When I first got to J. Reuben Long, I weighed a 190 pounds. I’m 230 now,” Bennett said. “I was hoping that I was going to lose weight now that I am more active than when I was in jail. But I can’t lose weight because of all the food.”
Before the Thanksgiving holiday, Bennett said he was looking forward to have a “real” turkey dinner, incomparable to the turkey he would get in prison.
“It’s not what you would eat,” Bennett said of holiday meals in prison. “In jail, you would always eat the same thing. You ate the same thing every Monday. Every Tuesday you ate the same thing. So, to have a turkey dinner in incarceration, it was kind of nice to have.”
Bennett was excited that his aunt was making a deep-fried turkey this Thanksgiving.
“I’ve never had a deep-fried turkey before. Every time I had turkey, it was baked,” Bennett said. “It just feels good to sit down with family and just enjoy it.”