by Phoebe Zerwick
Editor’s Note: Phoebe Zerwick, director of the journalism program at Wake Forest University, first came to know Darryl Hunt in 2003 when she investigated his wrongful conviction for the Winston-Salem Journal. After his exoneration in 2004, he became a nationally known advocate for social justice. When he took his life last year, the story pulled at her again. With her permission, we are pleased to publish an excerpt from “The Last Days of Darryl Hunt,” a magazine piece published with support from Duke Law School. The piece may be read in full at lastdays.atavist.com/the-last-days-of-darryl-hunt.
The last time I saw Darryl Hunt, he came to speak with students in my first-year writing seminar at Wake Forest University about what it was like for him to spend 19 years in prison for a murder he had nothing to do with. We met outside on a cold but sunny January morning. Hunt wasn’t wearing a coat and I could see he had lost weight since the last time I had seen him, but he looked rested and fit. We took a shortcut through the Starbucks in the lobby of the library to the building where I teach, and as usual in Hunt’s hometown, he was recognized immediately, this time by the women who worked the counter. They offered him free coffee, anything, it seemed, to take him by the hand and feel his presence. Polite as always, he smiled, but I could tell the fuss made him uncomfortable.
Hunt’s early-semester visit was the highlight of my composition course on wrongful conviction, a way for students, especially the white students, to connect the issues of race and justice that we would later study with a real person. Hunt played that role well. Soft-spoken, with a solid build and warm smile, he put people at ease. Ever since his exoneration in 2004, he had traveled around the country helping people understand the flaws in our criminal justice system through his story, which was one of extraordinary injustice. It was one thing for them to read about the mistaken eyewitnesses whose testimony landed Hunt in prison and his nearly two-decades long quest for justice, and quite another to hear him speak about how he was arrested when he was their age, a 19-year-old kid hoping only that someone would listen and believe him when he said he was innocent.
One story Hunt told that morning dated back to 1994, 10 years before his exoneration. His attorneys had presented DNA evidence proving that he wasn’t the rapist in the stabbing death of 25-year-old newspaper copy editor Deborah Sykes. Such evidence had cleared others wrongly convicted of crimes. But it didn’t clear Hunt. Instead, the superior court judge ruled that even if someone else raped Sykes, that didn’t mean Hunt hadn’t stabbed her. He was sent back to the Harnett County Correctional Institution, where another inmate, whom he called “Shorty Red,” met him in the yard.
“I’m glad to see you,” Hunt remembered Shorty Red telling him.
“What kind of sick joke is that?” Hunt replied.
“Ain’t no joke,” Shorty Red said. “I was getting ready to jump the fence” — prison-speak for suicide, because the guards in the tower will shoot to kill a prisoner who tries to break away — “but now that you’re back, I know I’ll be okay.”
As Hunt saw it, he may have lost in court, but in defeat he had saved another inmate’s life. It was a story that revealed the light so many saw in him.
The second story I had heard before. It was a darker story about the lingering trauma of what it must have been like to spend 19 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. I had never asked him much about those years, but every once in awhile he would hint at the horror. The night of his arrest in Winston-Salem, in 1984, the guards put him in a cell at the end of a corridor with a warning. “The last n***** we had in here we found hanging from the bars the next morning,” they told him. Hunt slept that night with his head by the toilet and his feet by the bars so that no one could reach in and strangle him, a habit he continued once he was in prison and skinheads targeted him with death threats because he was a black man convicted in the murder and rape of a white woman. Guards tried to lure him to hidden corners of the prison yard; when he refused, they put him in solitary, the hole. By the time he came to speak with my students, he’d been out of prison for a dozen years, but the fear of returning never left him. His alibi back in the Sykes case hadn’t held up: His witnesses cracked under pressure, so he couldn’t prove that he had not been at the scene of the crime, a field in downtown Winston-Salem, where, in the predawn light, the state’s witnesses testified that they had seen him. Now that he was out, he made a daily habit of stopping by an ATM machine, figuring the surveillance camera at the ATM would capture his image and the receipt would prove he’d been there, at that machine, on that day, at that time, an irrefutable record, in case he ever needed one again.
I looked around the room and could see that his words kept my students enthralled. He had that effect on audiences. But I wonder now whether he was trying to tell us something through these stories, something essential that we didn’t hear.
There are lots of stories out there about Darryl Hunt. There was the story the police and prosecutors told that led to his wrongful conviction. In that story, eyewitnesses placed him at the scene of the crime, either attacking Sykes, or just before or after the brutal stabbing. There were always pieces missing from that story, but it held up through years of trials and appeals.
There was the story his supporters told about race and injustice. In that story, Hunt was part of the long and brutal history of oppression in the South, a place where a black man could be lynched for something as minor as whistling at a white woman and false arrest was understood as a fact of life.
There was the story I told as a newspaper reporter, an investigative series published in the Winston-Salem Journal, which laid out the facts in a way that refuted the prosecutor’s version and set off a series of events that led to the arrest of the real killer in the crime. There was the story told in The Trials of Darryl Hunt, an HBO documentary that’s been screened around the world, which cast Hunt as a champion for racial justice. And there were the stories Hunt told, like the ones he told my students, about his years of imprisonment, stories that captivated audiences at film screenings, law schools and political rallies, spoken in a steady, deliberate manner that seemed at odds with the outrage they made us feel.
The story that has yet to be told, and might never be, is how Hunt came to be found by police early one Sunday morning in 2016, slumped dead in the front seat of a pickup truck he had borrowed from a friend. He was 51. By the time he was found, shortly after midnight March 13, he’d been missing for nine days. He had parked the truck, a white Ford, at a shopping center on University Parkway, a main north-south artery, across from the city’s coliseum, near a thrift store, a gaming parlor, and an all-night diner called “Jimmy the Greek.” The truck belonged to his friend Larry Little, a former city council member in Winston-Salem who had organized support for Hunt the entire time he was in prison. Hunt had been living with Little since the beginning of the year, about a mile away from where the truck was parked. Little and others had looked for him for nearly a week, but never noticed the truck in a well-lit parking lot so near a busy road.
News of Hunt’s death spread quickly. By that evening, dozens gathered for an impromptu memorial in the sanctuary at Emmanuel Baptist Church, where many of the same people had celebrated his release in 2003 and where one of his early supporters, John Mendez, is pastor. Theresa Newman, a law professor at Duke University, which had awarded Hunt an honorary doctorate in 2012 and where he spoke every year to the entering class of law students, talked about the impact he made on them, and his neighbor, a state legislator, spoke about Hunt’s love of animals. A former client of the foundation Hunt founded after his release to help ex-offenders with re-entry said, “Darryl Hunt saved my life.” I told the stories he had shared with my class, stories that suddenly seemed steeped with meaning.
“Once you’re hooked by Darryl you can’t be unhooked by Darryl,” said Mark Rabil, the lawyer who represented him for 20 years and remained his advocate and friend until his death. “It’s this strength, it’s this courage that you just can’t let go.”
Mendez, the pastor, who had gone to the scene early that morning with Little and Carlton Eversley, another member of Hunt’s original defense committee, struggled to compose himself.
“I didn’t know if I could do this, after last night,” he said. Mendez spoke about the anguish Hunt had suffered in prison and the ways in which we all internalize pain. “That was Darryl’s struggle,” he said. “We saw Darryl on the outside but a lot of us did not see Darryl on the inside.”
The formal memorial, the following Saturday at Emmanuel, raised even more questions about his life and death. Police had announced by then that Hunt had died of a gunshot wound to the abdomen, a shocking final moment of violence.
Television cameramen crowded into the church lobby with mourners, who quickly filled the sanctuary that holds more than a thousand. Most of those closest to Hunt were there — Rabil and activists from around the state who worked with him after his release to lobby for criminal justice reforms; Khalid Griggs, the imam at the Community Mosque of Winston-Salem, where Hunt was a member, and the rest of the clergy who had led the rallies in his support; Jo Anne Goetz, his sixth grade teacher, who later wrote a book about the lessons his case taught her about racism; and Hunt’s sister, Doris Hunt, unknown to him until his fame helped her track him down. James Ferguson, the noted civil rights attorney who represented Hunt at his second trial, was there, too. So were Judge Gregory Weeks, who presided over the first sentencing hearing under the Racial Justice Act, a law that Hunt lobbied for to provide for appeals in death sentences on the basis of systemic racial bias; Superior Court Judge Andy Cromer, who exonerated Hunt in 2004; and Pam Peoples Joyner, the director of the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice, now a community liaison for the city police department.
Behind the scenes, there’d been some question about where to hold the funeral. Hunt was a practicing Muslim most of his adult life, but Little, the executor of Hunt’s estate, had his body cremated, contrary to Muslim practice. Griggs, the imam, later told me that they held funeral prayers, or janazah prayers, for Hunt at the Community Mosque that Friday afternoon, for Muslims who had traveled from across the Southeast to honor him.
The service Little organized focused on Hunt’s public life, with a program that cast him as a martyr for social justice and comparisons by speakers to Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Eversley gave the prayer, Mendez a eulogy and Rev. William Barber, the head of the state’s NAACP and the Moral Monday movement, made a surprise appearance, delivering a second eulogy, later posted to YouTube, that addressed some of the turmoil he imagined Hunt had been feeling.
“Too often our warriors can’t even be human, even for a public second,” Barber intoned. “The relief it might give to help, even this must die because very few, even those who look to them, can handle the truth, that even our heroes get weak sometimes, so they have to smile when only crying makes sense.” Little spoke too, a rambling talk about Hunt’s legacy that brought people to their feet and turned the atmosphere into something that felt more like a political rally than a funeral.
Little showed a video, listed on the program as a “Message from Darryl Hunt.” Most of it was scenes from Hunt’s public life combined with footage of a walk he made on the 30th anniversary of his arrest, past landmarks from that period of his life: the lot where the apartment building where his friend Sammy Mitchell lived; the spot where police first questioned him; and the white-frame Lloyd Presbyterian Church where the early rallies for him were held. But it was the opening scene that I can’t forget, and neither can anyone else I’ve spoken with who saw it. Hunt is seated in an ornate love seat, upholstered in a white satin or brocade, looking directly at the camera. “If you see this,” he says, in a flat, lifeless voice, “I am probably already dead.” The woman behind me gasped. “Jesus,” she said.
The stories we told shaped Hunt’s life. Convicted him. Set him free. Made him a champion of justice. But his death seemed to be telling us that these narratives missed something. They didn’t exactly lie, but they weren’t the entire truth either. That’s the trouble with storytelling.
This is my attempt to get the story straight.
This excerpt skips over Part 1, which tells the story of Hunt’s exoneration and his rise to national acclaim through the film, The Trials of Darryl Hunt. Part 1 may be read online at lastdays.atavist.com/the-last-days-of-darryl-hunt.
Hunt’s story shaped my life, too. Because of my work on his story, the Winston-Salem Journal made me a full-time investigative reporter in 2004. When I left the newspaper four years later, I used it to establish myself as a freelancer. Largely on the strength of my work on his case, I landed a full-time job teaching writing and journalism at Wake Forest, where I have used his story to inspire my first-year composition students and help them understand how race shapes our justice system in ways that remain true today. Its details are woven into my family’s story, too. My memory of walking my son to school includes the image of Hunt, grinning at the wheel of his cobalt blue Ford truck with his stepson in the front seat, also on their way to Brunson Elementary School. At Passover every year, when Jews gather over a Seder dinner to celebrate the ancient exodus from Egypt, we read a letter Rabil wrote to Hunt in 1994, right after he was refused a new trial.
“As long as you are shackled, so are we,” Rabil wrote. “Remember what Moses said to Israel before the Red Sea parted: The Lord himself will fight for you; you have only to keep still.”
I know Hunt’s early story up until his exoneration as well anyone. In the 2003 investigative series, I wrote about how he had been raised by his grandparents, how his mother was murdered when he was 9, how he never knew his father. By the time he was 19, his grandparents were dead and the small inheritance they had left him was gone, spent in part on setting up a home for his girlfriend and her daughter. He was homeless, staying some nights with girlfriends and other nights with his friend, Sammy Mitchell. I also certainly knew the facts of the case: how he had been convicted on the strength of four eyewitnesses, one of them a member of the Ku Klux Klan; another a criminal who lied repeatedly to the police; the third, a hotel clerk who came forward eight days after his arrest (after Hunt’s photograph had been widely published in the newspaper and on TV news) to testify that he’d seen Hunt leave a hotel bathroom where he saw bloody water in the sink; and a fourth, a black man who’d been bullied into testifying it was Hunt he saw at the crime scene.
I also knew the obvious and subtle ways in which racial bias at all levels of the criminal justice system made the conviction of a black man accused of raping a white woman almost inevitable. Perhaps I was naive, but back when I first reported on the case, I didn’t worry much about whether the fact that I was a white, female reporter would taint my reporting. I believed, and still do, that the facts, when I found them, would speak for themselves. That hadn’t always been the case. In 1994, DNA testing showed that Hunt was not the one who had raped Sykes. But in a series of convoluted rulings, judges found a way to uphold his conviction. I also knew about the DNA match with Willard Brown that led to Hunt’s exoneration and how that match almost slipped away.
In my reporting, I had reviewed hundreds of pages of court filings and interviewed dozens of people, but I overlooked one critical clue. I had heard about a rape downtown six months after Sykes’ murder and looked into it, but dropped it when the detective who investigated told me that the suspect in that case had been in prison when Sykes was killed. The series ran in November 2003, with the first installment published on a Sunday. The next day, a woman called me to tell me about a crime that she always believed was related, the rape of her daughter-in-law in February 1985. It was the same rape I’d looked into earlier, but the woman on the phone told me that police discouraged her daughter-in-law from pressing charges against the man she identified.
I couldn’t ignore such a compelling call, and called the detective again, who told me again that the suspect had been in custody the day Sykes was attacked. This time he gave me a name, Willard Brown. A quick records check supported the detective’s claim that Brown was in custody the day Sykes was murdered. I should have known better than to stop there, but with my work already edited and laid out on the page, I was out of time. I hastily wrote about the second rape as an unexplored lead, another flaw in the deeply flawed case against Hunt.
When the series ran, a court order was pending, the one that prompted my investigation, for new DNA testing. A month later, the state ran the new DNA evidence against its database and came up with a near match, which led police to look again at Brown, a 43-year-old man with a long criminal record. A closer look at the record showed that while he had still been under state supervision the day Sykes was murdered, he hadn’t actually been in prison. DNA testing matched him to the rape and he gave a full confession. He is now serving a life sentence plus 10 years.
My professional role in Hunt’s story ended when I left the newspaper, but I kept up with him informally, mostly through Rabil, whose life was shaped by it in ways more profound than mine. Rabil describes some of those experiences in a 2012 article he wrote for the Albany Law Review titled “My Three Decades with Darryl Hunt,” which is part case study, part memoir, part warning about the pitfalls of tunnel vision and our belief in reason and action. In it, Rabil tells how other lawyers in town ridiculed him for his relentless dedication to Hunt’s case and how Hunt’s post-conviction appeals and losses coincided with his first wife’s battle with cancer and then her death. Throughout, Rabil was driven by a burning anger.
“I think I broke my hand when I slammed it on the courthouse as I left following my brief statement to the media,” he wrote Hunt in 1994, in the same letter I read every year at Passover. “So it will probably be a long time before I stop feeling this day. I went to the YMCA and ran one mile for each year of this case in the wind and rain.”
Rabil also landed at Wake Forest, directing the law school’s Innocence and Justice Clinic, which reviews claims of wrongful conviction like Hunt’s. Occasionally I would see Hunt and Rabil together, when I was invited to sit on panels with them at screenings of the documentary. Hunt never watched the film, but instead appeared at the rear of the theater as the credits rolled; seeing his ordeal unfold on the screen had become too painful to watch. He suffered panic attacks, too. They could be triggered by something as simple as seeing a lime green light, which reminded him of the day he was convicted, when he stared at a reporter’s lime green socks to keep his composure in front of the cameras. Rabil called them symptoms of what he believed was post-traumatic stress disorder.
Rabil kept me up to date on Hunt, the way friends talk about another friend in trouble. By 2014, Hunt and his wife, April, had separated and he had moved to Durham. In 2015, Hunt moved to Atlanta to live with a half-sister. Sometime that year, I heard through Rabil that Hunt had prostate cancer. Rabil had driven to Atlanta, hoping Hunt would allow him to accompany him to the doctor to discuss treatment options. Instead, they met afterward for coffee. We chalked it up to stubborn pride. The following January, when it was time for Rabil to speak to my composition class, he told me Hunt had moved back to town, and he’d see if Hunt could come, too. I met Hunt outside the library, unsure how much to ask after his health, so I played it safe. “Welcome back,” I said, or something close to it. “I’m sorry you’ve been sick, but you look good.”
“Yea,” he said. “If I’m going to die, I might as well come home and be close to people I love.”
I hadn’t intended on writing about Hunt again. In fact, I figured I never would. My friendship with Rabil and Hunt’s work with my students meant I had lost the distance expected of journalists. But when Hunt died, the story pulled at me, in ways I couldn’t ignore. In part, I regretted that I had accepted his calm demeanor, which made him so inspiring to my students, but, I was now beginning to suspect, concealed a more troubled life. I fell back on what I knew best, a dogged reporting method developed over years in a newsroom, in the stubborn belief that if there’s truth to be told, it lies in the facts. I checked the court file on his divorce. I talked to the people who worked in the stores and restaurants at the College Plaza shopping center where he was found. I even tried tracking down the permit friends told me he had to carry a concealed weapon, but those are no longer public record. I hoped to find surveillance footage of the shopping center, but the manager told me they didn’t have a camera set up. I talked to anyone I could think of who had been close to him the last year of his life. And I pored over the Facebook posts that appeared within hours of the news breaking that police had found his body. One surprised me. It was a 10-second video of Hunt driving with April in a convertible, on a country road somewhere, with R&B playing on the radio. Hunt wore a red hat, April wore shades that made her look like a star. The moment looked recent and carefree.
Phoebe Zerwick is a journalist based in North Carolina and the director of journalism at Wake Forest University. Her work has been published in Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine, National Geographic online, and The Nation online. Research for this story was supported in part by a grant from Duke Law School.
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