Darryl Hunt, the 51 year-old advocate for the wrongly convicted who spent nearly two decades behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit, was found dead in the vehicle of a friend on March 13 in what police implied was suicide by gunshot. Hunt had been imprisoned for an entire decade after DNA evidence proved he was in no way connected to the crime he was accused of committing.
Hunt had been wrongfully accused and convicted in 1985 for the murder of a 25 year-old white woman named Deborah Sykes in Winston Salem, North Carolina. He was nearly sentenced to death but for the dissent of a lone juror. After his conviction was thrown out in 1989 based on a technicality, Darryl Hunt tried to put the pain of the past behind him by getting married and attempting to move on, only to be dragged back into court to be retried in a rural white district in front of an all-white jury which unanimously voted to convict him after he, taking the principled stand of refusing to admit to a crime he didn’t do, refused to accept a plea bargain.
It wasn’t until 2003 when yet another DNA test emerged linking a different person entirely to the murder of Sykes, and on February 6, 2004 – after – Darryl Hunt was finally free. Even then the mother of Deborah Sykes, Evelyn Jefferson, insisted “a guilty man” was being released. In response to her assertion Hunt stood up, looked directly at her and said, “I feel the pain you felt.”
Unfortunately over the last few years Darryl Hunt’s life seems to have taken a turn for the worse, with a diagnosis of prostate cancer, a divorce, the freezing of his assets and seizure of his truck due to a single missed payment all occurring within a short time-frame. (The cost of all of this should have been fully covered by the state of North Carolina as compensation for the living hell they made his life.) Despite these difficulties, he never quit advocating and doing whatever he could for those who’d been subjected to the same kind of cruel injustice by the state as himself. His advocacy and the notoriety of his case led to the creation of North Carolina’s Innocence Inquiry Commission – a state agency tasked with specifically dealing with the matter of the wrongful convictions. In the words of the co-director of Duke University Law School’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, Theresa Newman, “I’ve never met [anyone] who was more selfless. He never really took time for himself. He wasn’t a good caregiver to himself.”