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.
I first met Ernest on February 2, 1995, at Central Prison in Raleigh. Of all my clients, he was the least needy. For one thing, he was sane. Ernest’s problems stemmed from his self-medication of depression with alcohol and drugs. Once he was locked up, he got clean and became a new man. Or, as he might say, Jesus saved him from his evil ways.
Ernest also had a strong support system. He had reconnected with his family, most of whom were quite normal — whatever that means. A family member visited him every week, despite the 90 mile drive and the harsh visiting conditions of a small closet-sized room, with steel stools and a Plexiglas barrier separating visitor from inmate. They had missed only five or six visits over ten years.
Rose was Ernest’s most tireless advocate, laboring since his arrest in 1992 to get needed evidence at every stage of litigation. But her work was largely in vain. Ernest’s trial lawyers did not use any of the records she obtained, nor did they prep the witnesses she secured. On appeal, we had no success in getting a court to listen to the evidence. For us all, the post-conviction process had been a roller-coaster ride of hope and despair, hope and despair, hope and despair.
Now, in November 2002, we clung to one last hope: the Governor could commute Ernest’s death sentence to life without the possibility of parole. We knew this hope was a long shot. Governor Mike Easley was the former Attorney General and had presided over ten executions and had pushed for upholding the death sentence of numerous inmates, including Ernest Basden. In addition, he had just commuted earlier in the year the death sentence of Charlie Alston, who was possibly innocent. What were the chances of a second commutation? Yet, we felt we had an unusually strong case for a life sentence.
First, there were the facts around the crime:
- There were more culpable co-defendants. Sylvia White wanted her husband, Billy, dead. She convinced Lynwood Taylor, Ernest’s nephew, to kill Billy. Together, they devised a plot, but Lynwood, local drug dealer and police informant, did not want to pull the trigger himself.
- As one court described him, Ernest was a manipulated rube, chronically depressed and a heavy user of alcohol and drugs. Lynwood plied Ernest with drugs and alcohol and convinced him to help for a small amount of money.
- Ernest lacked the mental state required by law for a first degree conviction much less the death sentence. On the fatal night, Lynwood tricked Billy into meeting him and drove an intoxicated Ernest to the designated remote plot of land. When Billy arrived, Lynwood introduced himself and then walked away. Ernest got out of the car, picked up a shotgun, and shot Billy twice.
Then, there were the circumstances surrounding the trial and sentencing:
- Lynwood and Sylvia were given more lenient treatment by State officials; both avoided the death penalty. The State permitted Taylor to plead guilty to first-degree murder four years after the crime; he received a sentence of life imprisonment. Similarly, the State allowed Sylvia to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit murder and second-degree murder, four years after the crime. She too received a sentence of life imprisonment, despite the fact that the State had recently convicted her of the 1973 unrelated murder of her four year old stepson (Billy’s son and namesake), who she suffocated with a plastic bag.
- Ernest’s lead trial counsel bowed out shortly before trial because he was dying of leukemia. He had done little work on Ernest’s case, but the court refused to delay the trial. New counsel was completely ineffective, most notably for allowing Ernest to testify for the State in Sylvia White’s baby-killing case without benefit of his testimony.
- Many of the jurors gave affidavits and videotaped interviews that they did not intend for Ernest to actually be executed. They were convinced by the foreman that a death sentence would be overturned. They just wanted to send a strong message of condemnation.
- Ernest was a model prisoner and served as liturgist for death row.
- Ernest had a dedicated family undeserving of the weight of Ernest’s looming execution.
 Basden v. Lee, 290 F.3d 602, 612 (4th Cir. 2002).