Excerpted from Beyond Innocence
Beyond Innocence is my attempt to finish a story I began long ago, in 2003, when I wrote about the wrongful conviction of Darryl Hunt for the Winston-Salem Journal. Hunt was in prison then for the 1984 murder of a newspaper editor who had been raped and stabbed to death, not far from the newsroom where I worked. But a claim of innocence is no defense and only after 19 years of legal battles and the tireless effort of local activists was Hunt released. It was a triumphant moment for him, for his supporters, and for me.
It’s not that case of innocence, however, that led me to this book, but rather what happened over the next 12 years, after he was exonerated, after he became a champion for justice, after the trauma he had endured caught up with him and he was dead.
To the outside world, Hunt was the man who walked out of prison without rancor or regret. But the past haunted him, and the heroic narrative of a man who fought for justice masked a deep despair.
I first heard about his case when I arrived in North Carolina in July 1987, fresh out of journalism school when I headed south from New York City to a region that felt rich in stories. Most of the other reporters at the Journal were my age, in their mid-to-late 20s, all of us looking to launch a career in a state known as a training ground for journalism. Two of my new co-workers proposed a tour one Saturday of local landmarks, ending with lunch of barbecue, pinto beans, and sweet tea.
The first stop was an overgrown park, two blocks away from the back door to the newsroom. I don’t remember if we walked or drove, or if I noticed the odd fence made of wood pilings, or the trash that littered the hillside. They told me about Deborah Sykes, a copy editor at the former afternoon newspaper, who three years earlier had been raped and stabbed to death there one summer morning. She was 25 when she died, young and ambitious like me. They told me, too, that a Black teenager named Darryl Hunt had been convicted in her death, and that the case had become a flashpoint in the city’s racial politics. Many Black people in town believed that he had been railroaded. It was a story I would need to understand if I was going to understand this place I now called home.
Other reporters wrote about Hunt’s case over those years in the neutral style we all accepted as objective journalism. From that balanced perspective, it seemed impossible that after two trials, three layers of appellate review, and the tireless efforts of attorneys, that a truly innocent man could be imprisoned.
By 2003, I was the newspaper’s metro columnist, bringing a personal perspective to the news of the week. Prompted by an appeal Hunt filed for new DNA testing, my editors assigned me to investigate a case that was by then 19 years old. The series I wrote, “Murder, Race, Justice: The State vs. Darryl Hunt,” was published in November 2003. Written as an eight-part narrative, the articles reveal;ed what that balanced perspective had missed and helped our readers – including the judge who had ordered DNA testing – see facts they thought they knew in a different way. A month later, threatened with a contempt order, the state completed its DNA testing, ran the profile through its database of convicted felons and found a match. Hunt was released from the Forsyth County jail on Christmas Eve and exonerated two months later, in February 2004.
My work on Hunt’s story was over.
Then, in March 2016, Hunt disappeared, setting off a frantic search. After nine days, he was found in the passenger seat of a pickup truck, parked beside a busy road, dead from what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound. I grieved his death, not with the intensity of those who loved him, but with the knowledge that I, among others who had been a part of bringing about justice for him, ultimately had failed him, believing the stories we told about him all the while missing a more complex and troubling tale.
In life, Hunt had been a heroic figure, wrongly convicted at 20, exonerated at 39, and at the time of his death a tireless advocate for reform. Like so many others who have been falsely imprisoned, Hunt was traumatized, first by the soul-shattering injustice of it all, then by the years in prison, often in solitary, and finally by re-entry into a culture that did not and would not understand him.
Some will prefer that I left Hunt’s secrets alone and his image undisturbed, but among his friends, at least those I have come to know, the myth matters less than the man. “I ain’t no choir boy,” his friend Ayyub Rasheed told me almost every time we met. “And Hunt was no angel,” as if to remind me that only the full story of Hunt’s life could restore the humanity that was stolen from him.