Freedom and Forgiveness: A Story of Wrongful Conviction


Darryl Hunt and his wife on the day of his release from prison after 19 years of wrongful incarceration.

The 20th century provided minimal progress by the way of North Carolina race relations. In 1960 four students spoke their minds simply by sitting at the Woolworth’s counter, but their bravery, and that of others did little to change the local atmosphere.

Living in Greensboro, as Jews with Yankee parents, my brothers and I constituted the local minority, but our family hardly stood out in that world. We lived in an all-white neighborhood. We swam at an all white pool. With housing still heavily segregated, Greensboro continued to mandate busing, in at least a gesture to integrated schools. I would soon develop two sets of friends – one for home, one for school – but in my youth, I thought nothing unusual of this arrangement. I neither knew nor could imagine anything else.

In August of 1984, I had just turned five, was about to begin kindergarten and had no idea that down the road in Winston-Salem, slightly beyond my own protected enclave in Greensboro, Darryl Hunt began a life-long trial, a test perfectly designed to bend and break him under the weight of incomprehensible hatred, ignorance, and arrogance.

But Mr. Hunt did not fail; their test did. Instead of giving credence to a system unfairly stacked and applied, instead of taking a false guilty plea to regain his freedom, instead of cultivating his own clearly appropriate rage and hatred, Hunt maintained his innocence, his sprit and his faith. Today he leads a life of activism, and forgiveness, using the past to propel him forward.

More than twenty years after his arrest, a film has been made about Hunt’s life, and his promotional travels recently brought him to the Ames Court Room at Harvard Law School. Designed as an homage to justice, this room hosted an event that showcased a horrendous example of its abuse.

April Garrett, a Divinity School graduate, current president of the Harvard Divinity School Alumni/ae of African Descent (formerly the Black Alumni/ea Network), and founder of the non-profit Civic Frame, emceed the evening, which included a screening and open question session. Mr. Hunt’s long-standing supporters accompanied him, including original defense counsel Benjamin Dowling-Sendor (HLS ’76) and Mark Rabil, and Reverend John Mendez, founder of the Darryl Hunt Defense Fund. Film producer Katie Brown represented Break-Thru Films, the project’s production company.

Provocative and painful, The Trials of Darryl Hunt stirs anyone with so much as an empty space in their heart for guilt, astonishment, anger, and, finally, self-reflection. The film lets Mr. Hunt’s words and the suffering he endured speak for themselves. The haunting music bespeaks a sweltering American South, heated by the August sun and brewing violence. It runs chronologically, recounting the murder of young Deborah Sykes, the fingering of Darryl Hunt, and the following 19 years of battle against the courts and the community.

It becomes apparent early that Winston-Salem law enforcement and prosecutors, in a clearly united effort, focused so intently upon making a conviction and assuaging community fears that they overlooked integrity. Shoddy leads brought them to Hunt’s friend, Sam Mitchell, and the investigators went so far as to offer Hunt $12,000 to betray his friend. Hunt rejected that deal. This would not be the last instance of Hunt disregarding selfishness and risking his earthly fate to maintain his ethics and his innocence.

The entire trial process exhibited little in the way of justice. An all-white jury heard both the original trial and the appeal. Before being assigned Hunt’s case, an inexperienced Rabil had never handled a murder case. Even the witnesses were as suspect as the other forms of evidence, including a 14-year old prostitute, cocaine addict, and mental hospital resident who, after first identifying Hunt, wanted to retract her statement.

Hunt’s defense team knew they stood little chance of an impartial hearing. “We had Gomer Pyles and Barney Fifes on the jury,” said Mendez. “There was no way we were going to get a fair trial, especially at that time. There was no way that Darryl was going to be judged by his peers.”

Many years later, when concrete DNA evidence could have eliminated Hunt as the perpetrator, those same prosecutors concocted every possible story to justify their earlier conviction, and the court declined to grant a third trial, shocking all involved in the defense. “We felt fairly righteous, justified, that this was the end,” said Rabil, stunned at the judge’s ruling.

Only when the DNA evidence was found to match another man in the system, Willard Brown, when that man was convicted, when the defense managed to satisfy the court that Hunt had no connection to Brown, only then, in 2003, nineteen years after the ordeal began, did Hunt regain his freedom.

Even then, Hunt bore no ill will towards the man who had let Hunt shoulder the crime and sit in jail; he even maintained confidence in the system, at least as it should be used, rather than as how it was used against him. “God willing, he will get a fair trial,” Hunt said. “Justice will run its course.”

Speaking after his final release, Hunt succinctly rehashed the preceding years. “From day one, I told them I was innocent,” he said. “And the question has always been, is anyone listening. And today confirms that someone was listening.”

Unified by Hunt’s innocence, those involved in his fight steeled in support of him for all of those nineteen years. “The primary thing that drew us all together was Darryl,” Menendez said. “We knew that we had to eventually get Darryl exonerated.”

Following the film, the panel took questions, exemplifying spirituality, dedication, and miraculously, a sense of humor.

As I sat and listened to Mr. Hunt speak, still stewing in the collective frustrations of my day – the woman who cut me off, the fool who didn’t curb his dog, the cheap Styrofoam cup that left me covered with coffee – I was astonished by Mr. Hunt’s attitude. Influenced by my modern cynicism, I simply could not fathom that level of forgiveness.

“If you want to live, you have to let anger and bitterness out of your heart, because anger and bitterness eat you up,” said Hunt, as matter-of-factly as if he was speaking of the blueness of the sky or the roundness of the earth. “Over the years I came to understand that if was to ask God to help free me and prove my innocence and forgive me for anything I have done to anyone, I must forgive others for what they have done to me.”

His relationship with God allows Hunt to accept the fallibility of mankind. “The Supreme Being controls everything,” he said. “Every day I sat in prison, my faith grew stronger. We need to have faith in God. We are fallible human beings, so we must put our faith in something perfect.”

Staying in Winston-Salem also offers Hunt peace, despite how it disserved him in the past. “To stay there, people see me every day, to remind them of what happened to me. My pain is at ease when I know it will stop and help someone else in the future.”

Hunt has transformed his own pain into a massive undertaking, speaking, teaching, bringing his faith and his wisdom to all who may hear. He currently leads the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice, a non-profit whose mission statement sums up Hunt’s own sense of duty, “to educate the public about flaws in the criminal justice system, to advocate for those wrongfully incarcerated as a result of those flaws, and to provide resources and support for those trying to rebuild their lives.”

“This is part of my therapy, to talk and help someone else not to have to go through it.” Hunt said. “So there are voices for the voiceless, because when you are locked up, someone else has to speak for you.”

“The problem is once they get trapped into the system, they are in the system for life,” explained Hunt. “Can’t get a job because they have a felony. Can’t get housing because they have a felony. You are forcing them to go right
back to criminal activity to survive. Most people who wind up in the criminal justice system have problems – addictions, bi-polar – but the system is not there to rehabilitate; the system is to warehouse.”

“I was missing 19 years on my resume,” he said.

Hunt sees applications for these lessons in every aspect of life. “Everyone in prison is from different backgrounds and different nationalities, and they can get along,” he said. “Everyone in prison uses the same face cloth; it just goes through a washing machine! So why can’t we get along out here?”

Similarly involved, Mendez rallies for the victim. “You cannot separate the oppressed from the prison system,” he said, voice infused with fervor. “Oppression makes you sick. You cannot marginalize a group of people and expect them to come back healthy.”

Sender and Rabil offered the lawyer’s perspective. “At the core of this system should be recognition of human fallibility,” said Sender. “We worked as an incredible team, and we kept losing because we were up against a system that refused to acknowledge human fallibility. If the State Supreme Court had just spent a few minutes of honest reflection on how wrong they could have been. The system, from top to bottom, had so many different opportunities to look reality in the face and recognize it. Maybe the case ended up as it did to force the system to recognize its fallibility.”

Rabil concurred to this sentiment. “As long as we have a system of government, as long as we have human nature, there is always going to be a dragon, there is always going to be a Saddam Hussein,” he said. “The role of a criminal defense lawyer is to protect the right of a few individuals.”

Both men concede the difficulty of this task. But they also acknowledge its rewards and, more importantly, the necessity of such battles.

Rabil knew, despite external pressure and fear for his family’s safety, that, until justice was served, the fight would continue. “If you can explain it to your children in an honest way, then you are doing the right thing,” he said.

Now married, and clearly at peace with himself, Hunt has only ever had one wish. “To live a decent life,” he said. “I wanted physical freedom,” Hunt said. “But I was free in my heart, because I wasn’t going to admit to something I didn’t do.”

To this very day, Hunt will wander outside, late at night, just to stare at the stars. Just because he can, because that is what freedom allows him.

This sky is the same one I see, but with sadly different eyes.

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