I am saddened to learn of the death of Darryl Hunt. On Sunday, he was found dead, slumped over in his car in a shopping center parking lot in Winston-Salem, NC. The immediate cause of his death has not yet been released, but who can doubt what lies at the root of the cause — state-induced trauma.
In 1984, Darryl was accused and convicted of a murder and rape that he did not commit. Despite the lack of any credible evidence, Darryl spent almost 20 years in prison for these crimes. The State of North Carolina sought a death sentence but fell short of its goal; a good thing since Darryl would likely have been executed by the time DNA and a subsequent confession by the killer proved, to even the most ardent doubters, that Darryl was indeed actually innocent. His journey of injustice is captured in the documentary The Trials of Darryl Hunt.
As a young lawyer, I observed Darryl’s numerous loses in court from a distance. I knew his appellate attorneys and saw them build a stronger and stronger legal case showing that an innocent man had been wrongfully convicted. I felt their — and my — hopes for justice rise at each stage of review, only to have judge after judge deny relief. A DNA test exonerated Darryl of the rape in 1994, yet his request for a new trial was denied. It would be another 10 years, when the actual killer was identified, before a judge would order a new trial and, ultimately, release.
I was fortunate to cross paths with Darryl a few times after his release. He was always humble, polite and giving. When I invited him to speak to my small Access to Justice class at Charlotte School of Law, he was glad to do so, despite requiring a long drive at night. As he had done for so many others, he showed my students and me amazing grace in the face of extraordinary loss. His peaceful presence and advocacy for others after prison stands as a testament to how forgiveness is a much more desirable path than anger and resentment.
Nonetheless, no man can be carefree after losing 20 years of freedom because of racial bias and institutional arrogance, waiting day after day for those in power to hear his pleas of innocence. The stress Darryl suffered in prison, and then the stress suffered adjusting to the “real” world, must have taken an extreme toll on his body and mind. I am not surprised to learn that he suffered from both cancer and depression. Perhaps he was living under a death sentence after all.