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Unraveling of Case May Have Spared Innocent Man

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Cape Fear River runs brownish-green and deep enough to sink a body almost 6 feet tall, but not so deep as to hide the truth.

It was a horrifying crime. Twenty-year-old Steven Henry had been shot twice in the back of the head. Cinder blocks, knotted with rope around his leg and neck, weighted the body to the river bottom until it was found by a fisherman.

Horrifying, too, was the apparent motive: Had the victim, an admitted burglar who’d made a deal with prosecutors to testify against his thief-partner, been murdered to keep him silent? Yes, swore a man who said he’d witnessed the killing.

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The thief-partner, Anson Avery Maynard, was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to North Carolina’s gas chamber.

“May God have mercy on his soul,” wrote the sentencing judge.

Seven days before he was scheduled to die last year, Maynard received earthly mercy. Then-Gov. Jim Martin commuted his sentence to life in prison, preventing what lawyers said would have been the final horror in the case, the execution of an innocent man.

As Maynard waited on Death Row, a woman who had testified against him admitted she’d lied. The seemingly open-and-shut case began to unravel.

Her husband, the man who’d sworn Maynard was the killer, may have committed the 1981 crime himself over a soured drug deal with the victim, Maynard’s lawyers now believe. The couple since have died.

Several alibi witnesses came forward, including an apparently impartial truck driver who backs Maynard’s claim that he hitchhiked a ride after his car broke down far from where the crime was committed. No physical evidence tied Maynard to the crime.

“Whoever killed Steven Henry deserved the death penalty,” said Martin, who denied inmates’ clemency petitions in three unrelated cases. But he had serious doubts that that person was Maynard. Neither was he satisfied, however, that Maynard was innocent.

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That’s the case Maynard’s lawyers now are building to present to Gov. Jim Hunt, who succeeded Martin this year. A private detective and the State Bureau of Investigation are re-investigating, the lawyers said.

Attorneys William Simpson and Tom McNamara hope the man who came within days of execution eventually will be released.

“He says he’s innocent,” McNamara said. “Based on what I’ve seen, I believe he’s innocent too.”

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