In Memory of Darryl Hunt

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.




a feminist faces violence against women

The occurrence of violent crime has escalated significantly in my lifetime.  As you can see from the charts below, the worst of it occurred in the 1980s and 1990s.

crime rate graph

homicide rate graph

In North Carolina, the overall crime rate increased 39.6 percent between 1984 and 1994.  The state’s violent crime rate experienced the greatest spike between 1988 and 1992, with a 35.3 percent increase.[1]  This was the period in which I became immersed in murder cases.

One cause commonly cited for the increase in violent crime during the 1980s and ‘90s is the emergence of crack cocaine.  I can think of another:  there was a dramatic change in attitudes about violence against women and children.   I can remember when hitting your wife and even raping her were not crimes.   “She must have driven him to it or even wanted it” was a common response.

Thus, the increase in violent crime is, in part, perception.  Acts once tolerated as part of domestic relations became criminal.    As a result, women began acting accordingly and reporting it.  Of course, even today, many women still do not report violent acts perpetrated on them.

I grew up among rocky domestic relations.  I witnessed first-hand my mama and the men in her life argue, stomp, slam doors, and even pull the keys out of the ignition while traveling down the road.  I never saw physical violence, though it likely happened.  I also heard the tales of the affairs of my father and my grandfather, a different kind of disrespect and abuse of women.  Then there was the legendary abuse by my uncle T.W. of his wife and son, ending with his son shooting him dead.

I was one to stay out of the way.  I was not a vocal child.  Nevertheless, there was early evidence of feminism.  I was one of three girls who became the first female members of the Key Club at Coosa High School.   The boys, by the way, showed no mercy in our initiation.

In college, I was introduced to the wide world of “women’s issues.”  Whenever given the chance, I studied and wrote on women and religion.  My mentor was the only female religion professor, Carolyn Blevins.  I loved her classes on women in the Bible and in Baptist history.

In Seminary, my service gravitated towards helping women and children. I spent one summer volunteering at a battered women’s safe house in southeast Atlanta, a poor, primarily African-American community.  I saw firsthand the plight of poor women trying to gain independence from abusive men.

When I returned to Louisville, I began volunteering at the local rape crisis center. I was on-call just a few nights a month. If called, I was required to rush to the hospital to meet a rape victim and accompany her through the process. Or, if lucky, the call would be from a victim who was having a hard time coping and just wanted to talk.   (more at I saw and listened to women in terror.

Fast forward to 1993 and my first months as a death penalty defense lawyer.  I wondered how I would handle being an advocate for a man who had killed a wife, girlfriend or child.

[1] Crime and Justine in North Carolina: An Examination of 1984-1994 Data and Trends, available at (last visited June 3, 2013).

The Social Life of a Lawyer

When I became a lawyer, I entered a new and unfamiliar social stratum, completing the journey I had started in law school.  There were cocktail parties with professionals, office parties with colleagues and dinner parties with friends.  “Just like in the movies and t.v.,” I would happily think to myself.

To blend in socially, the learning curve was steep.  Some lessons I learned from error:  don’t show up at the advertised time of an event (or else you will be hanging out uncomfortably alone with the hosts for a while); carefully balance your wine glass with a plate of finger food, to avoid spilling on yourself or others.   Some lessons I learned from observation:  make small talk by asking about the other person; “work the room;” and the big one, greet friends with slight kiss on the cheek.  We never greeted with a kiss where I grew up, though I had seen it done in the movies.

Many of my formative life lessons have come from television movies and shows, not something one readily admits in the higher social strata.   When I was growing up, t.v. was my connection to the world.   As a teenager, I would hide in my bedroom, away from the family chaos around me.  Sure, I could have been reading books, but we weren’t much of a book family.  We were a t.v. family, and I had my own small black and white t.v. with rabbit ears, i.e. no cable.

Some shows on t.v. were pure escape, such as the Love Boat.  But others, particularly the movies, were transformative.  As I have written previously, Choices of the Heart made a huge impact on me, providing inspiration for selfless service to others.  There were other movies featuring strong women too, such as Norma Rae .  I was educated about the horror of the WWII concentration camps through The Hiding Place and the miniseries Holocaust and about America’s dark history of slavery through Roots.   The visual images of television evoked powerful emotions that shaped my brain and heart like no book could.

On the lighter side, my view of “the good life” was also shaped by television.  Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I soaked up romanticized images of what “making it” might look like.   There were the shows of independent women, such as That Girl and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, with their images of glamorized apartment living in the big city.   Other shows re-enforced these images, such as the Bob Newhart Show, as did many movies, such as those featuring the Rat Pack (reruns mind you).

Oddly, lawyer shows, such as L.A. law, did not shape my image of the lawyer life, perhaps because when I decided to become a lawyer it was to be a public interest lawyer.  I had no expectation of leading a fancy, dancy lawyer life.  Indeed, I was committed to simple living.

But, I did enjoy socializing.  My husband did not, though he continued to encourage me to go out without him.  Seeing couples having fun, whether in person or on television, was painful.  Sleepless in Seattle.  Hearts Afire.  Mad About You.  They all brought me to tears.

Luck, Calling or Destiny?

I was sitting at my desk at Prisoner Legal Services when I received the phone call.   The woman on the other end was a lawyer friend.  After some small talk, she got to her reason for calling:  “Cindy, I was talking with the Director of the North Carolina Resource Center the other day and recommended you for a staff position there.”

I was familiar with this state agency.  I had worked a few hours at the Resource Center in law school, doing some research for the Director.  It was a very small office, but according to Susan, they were expanding.  They also had a new Director, Henderson Hill, who had come to North Carolina via the Public Defender Service in Washington, D.C.

I was flattered, very flattered, that Susan would think of me.  She was a well-respected federal public defender.  I had met her when I was clerking for Federal Magistrate Judge Alexander Denson.  I had wanted to work for her office, but they were not hiring at the time.

“I’m not really looking for a job,” I replied.  I had been at PLS for less than nine months.  I represented inmates, not on death row, with their post-conviction appeals and with claims against the prison system, a good job for someone like myself, just out of law school.  Susan made the potential of the new expanded Resource Center sound exciting.  “I will definitely consider applying,” I said at the end of our conversation.

I cannot remember how I found out more about the open position at the Resource Center.  How did we do such things before the internet?   In any case, the more I learned about the position and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted it.   I applied and the rest, as they say, is history.  Or maybe it should be herstory?  I actively represented inmates on North Carolina’s death row for thirteen years and have continued to be active in death work.   All this herstory from one phone call, one connection.   I am very, very fortunate.

Loss by AIDS

I was at Prisoner Legal Services only nine months.  In that time, I won one case – my first win as a lawyer!   The State had miscalculated the parole date of my client, Chuck.   He should already have been eligible, but according the Department of Corrections, he was not.

I never met Chuck, and we never went to court.  The mistake was all resolved by phone calls and papers.  It wasn’t a huge win.  Chuck would have gotten out in a few months anyway.  But hey, who knows what a difference a few months can make in a man’s life, right?

I also lost my first client in those nine months.   One day, I received a letter from an inmate named George.  He had AIDS, which in 1993 was a death sentence.  He wrote “I don’t want to die in prison.  I want to die at home.”  There was a chance I could negotiate his release, since the State would prefer not to spend the money on all the end of life care that would be needed.   I visited George a couple of times in the hospital at North Carolina’s maximum security prison.  The hospital was old, dingy, and smelled of urine and bleach.  I liked George.   He was pleasant and very appreciative of my visits.

I was going through the mail one day when I saw a letter that I had sent to George.  Across the front, in large letters was stamped “deceased.”  That was how I found out that George had died.  That was how our relationship ended.  No good-byes.  I held the letter in my hands and wanted to do something.  But what was there to do?  Case closed.

According to The Foundation for Aids Research, by the end of 1993, 360, 909 cases of AIDS had been reported in the United States and 234,225 deaths from AIDS.  Today, it is estimated that over a million Americans are infected with the HIV virus.

These Boots are Made for Talking

My first job practicing law was at North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services.   My clients had legal issues that ranged from incorrect sentencing calculations to horrid jail conditions to injuries sustained from falling off of a bunk.  I liked the variety.

I also liked that my work took me to a variety of prisons and jails.  You learn a lot about a society by visiting their institutions of incarceration — and you learn a lot about yourself.    One day, I drove to a prison in the Sandhills of North Carolina, I parked in the unpaved lot, got out of my white jeep, and headed towards the front gate.  I looked for a visitor center or at least a guard station but didn’t see one.  “What’s your business?” a man yelled at me from the guard tower above.  I yelled back “I’m here for a lawyer visit.”   A bucket was lowered by a rope down to me.  I put my driver’s license and N.C. bar card in the bucket and up it went.  In a few minutes, the bucket came back down with my cards in it, and the gate opened.  I thought “what is this, Cool Hand Luke?” as I walked through the gates in my cowboy boots.

When you are a new lawyer, you think about what persona you want to project.  For some, particularly men, a dark tailored suit is the epitome of success. Men who want to project the image of a small town southern lawyer wear a seersucker suit.  In the 1990s, women lawyers were just coming into their own.   We took the traditional lawyer suit and “feminized” it as a way to project power in our own way.  Some wore blouses with bows tied at the neck.  Some accentuated their sensuality with short skirts.

To the classic skirt suit, I added cowboy boots.  Perhaps the relationship between power, confidence and cowboy boots was imprinted upon me as a child.  Many of my male relatives wore cowboy boots.   Or perhaps the brother of one of my death row clients had it right when he said to me when leaving court in 2005, “I now know why you wear boots in court:  you have a lot of crap to wade through.”

Father Void

I began working for North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services in the summer of 1993.    Finally, I had arrived at my destination – public interest lawyering.  As much as I loved being a student, I was ready to settle down.  But for a year and a half break between seminary and law school, I had been attending school full-time since kindergarten.

My family was very much ready for me to settle down.  My birth family had seen me off to college when I was 17 years old.   For fourteen years, every time I spoke with my grandfather, he had two questions: 1) you working? and 2) how’s the weather?   Granddaddy came from a long line of farmers, so I guess those were very important life questions to him.

I was a “good” kid, so I never dreaded Granddaddy’s questions.  I had been working since my freshman year in college, through seminary, until law school.  In law school, I worked only in the summers, causing me to be a bit creative in answering his questions during the school year.  But I was always able to point to something that resembled work to him and almost always able to tell him about the weather.

My husband, Paul, supported us during law school.  He worked full-time as a psychiatric aide at Duke University Medical Center.   I met Paul when I was 19.   He came from a working class family in east Tennessee.  They were union people, having moved from the coal mining country across the border in Virginia.

Paul’s father died suddenly of a brain aneurysm when Paul was just 13, leaving his mother to take care of two boys.  There was little to no life insurance and Paul’s mother had been a traditional housewife.  Literally overnight, Mary was forced into the job market with no college education and no job training.  When I came along, she was working as a manager at a Hallmark store.

As Paul and my relationship became serious, I was sad that Paul’s father was not around.  Both our mothers were single, and, oddly, as I moved through my twenties, I felt the father void in my life more acutely.