“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.