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.