On March 12, 2016, a silver alert was issued for Darryl Eugene Hunt. Several days later, authorities found him unresponsive in a friend’s pickup truck. Most newspaper headlines following Hunt’s death were permutations of the following – “Darryl Hunt, wrongly imprisoned for 19 years, found dead.” However, Hunt’s influence was far-reaching and crucial to making significant reforms to North Carolina’s criminal justice system.
In 1984, Hunt was convicted of the rape and murder of Deborah Sykes, a 25-year old newspaper copy editor in Winston-Salem. The prosecution’s case fed long held racial tropes of the dangers of young black men in our society. Sykes was white; Hunt was black. Hunt was convicted based mostly on eyewitness testimony by an all-white jury. He was spared the death penalty by a lone juror and sentenced to life in prison. Just short of ten years after his conviction, newly available DNA evidence revealed Hunt did not rape Sykes, yet he remained in prison for another ten years as prosecutors successfully argued that he could have committed the crime with another, unnamed assailant. It was not until 2004 that the DNA comparisons led to the identification and arrest of the true perpetrator. Hunt continued to maintain his innocence while imprisoned.
Once exonerated, Hunt spent the remainder of his life as a champion for justice and reform in the criminal justice system. One measure of his legacy is the influence that he had on Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation grantees, many of whom work to correct injustices similar to those that Hunt faced.
“His courage and commitment to being ‘a voice to the voiceless’ was unrivaled,” said Tarrah Callahan, who worked with Hunt at the NC Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Callahan recalls, “Every time I talked to him, he was putting up money from his own personal account to help anyone he could. When we found out that an execution date had been set for Troy Davis in Georgia and it looked like we weren’t going to be able to raise funds to cover the buses, Darryl just called the company and paid for them himself.”
Despite his tragic death, advocates believe his life and the lessons learned by working with Hunt have emboldened their commitment to address systematic unfairness in the justice system. Gerda Stein with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation said, “Darryl’s generosity, humility and quiet intelligence, coupled with his passionate commitment to justice made him one of the most extraordinary people I have ever known. The pain and damage would surface, but somehow we thought he would always overcome it. The only way to deal with the tragedy of his death is to work even harder to reform our flawed criminal justice system. No one can bring the rare combination of wisdom, concern and experience that Darryl did, but we owe it to him to every day carry on his fight for justice and love.”
Charmaine Fuller-Cooper, former organizer with the Carolina Justice Policy Center, worked closely with Hunt in 2009 to advocate for passage of NC’s Racial Justice Act. She shared how Hunt’s life in prison molded his approach to advocacy, yet also burdened his spirit. “The world may never know all that he did for others while struggling through the pain and memories of being wrongfully convicted,” said Fuller-Cooper. “The world may never know the peace and serenity that he brought into a room although his mind was consumed with nightmares from prison. The world may never know that while he was exonerated after 19 years in prison, that his mind couldn't escape the death threats and evil words spoken against him although he worked to do good by his community and family daily. My life is forever changed because I knew Darryl. He was my friend, a mentor and an inspiration. Darryl was that friend who was always in your corner. He inspired us all, and I wish that we could have done as much for him as he did for all of us.”
“It is hard to put into words the gap that has been left behind for the criminal justice reform efforts in North Carolina by the loss of Darryl Hunt,” said Chris Mumma, executive director of the NC Center on Actual Innocence. “As a board member, he provided our office with insight and inspiration that will live on in our work, although the man and his kindness will be missed every day. As an exoneree, his tragic story of wrongful conviction and delayed freedom that prompted the establishment of the country's first Innocence Inquiry Commission will be told for decades. But, those who have the power to impact change will never be blessed with the profound and motivating experience of meeting the hero we've lost.”
I only met Darryl Hunt twice. Both times we spoke, I was struck by his compassion, despite the injustice that he had experienced. His story and his actions helped usher in the innocence movement in the state, a movement that has continued to gain momentum due to Hunt’s willingness to speak out for those who have been wrongly convicted.
As seen by the testaments provided from Foundation grantees, Darryl Hunt created a long-lasting impression on all those he met. His contributions to North Carolina will be sorely missed.