The Life Sentence of Darryl Hunt
Darryl Hunt is a seminal figure in the annals of wrongful convictions, both for what he endured and for his remarkable legacy. A young Black man falsely accused of murdering a white woman in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and sentenced to life in prison, he spent 19 years behind bars before his tireless attorneys were able to prove his innocence. After his exoneration in 2004, as depicted in the acclaimed documentary, The Trials of Darryl Hunt, Hunt became a national advocate for social justice, devoted himself to alleviating the “civil death” almost every ex-prisoner faces upon re-entry into society, and in time inspired lasting reforms, among them a law that allows those on death row to appeal their sentence with evidence of racial bias and a state agency unique to North Carolina that
investigates and adjudicates claims of innocence. He was a beacon of hope for so many—until he could no longer bear the burden of the injustice he had experienced and in 2016 took his own life.
Phoebe Zerwick had investigated Hunt’s case as a newspaper reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal in a series of articles that led to his DNA exoneration. Deeply troubled at his death by the idea that she and others who fought for Hunt’s freedom had missed something, she set out to
understand the full story of Hunt’s life. In Beyond Innocence: The Life Sentence of Darryl Hunt (Atlantic Monthly Press; March 8, 2022; ISBN: 978-0-8021-5937-3; $27 hardcover), Zerwick restores the humanity of an extraordinary man who had wanted nothing more than to live a decent life, whose story should inspire us all.
In the preface, Zerwick writes:
Beyond Innocence looks squarely at the toll of the carceral state on one man—a peaceful, tormented man no longer here to tell his own story—and calls for a reckoning with the failures of our justice system, with the scourge of prison, with the arrogant power of the state, and most of all with the intractable legacy of racism, all bearing down on one man who lay dead for days in a pickup truck in an obscure shopping center, alone and unnoticed.
Part true crime drama, part chronicle of a remarkable life cut short by systematic prejudice, Zerwick’s narrative powerfully illuminates the sustained catastrophe faced by an innocent person in prison and the difficulty all formerly incarcerated people face when they try to restart their lives. Fluidly crafted by a master journalist, Beyond Innocence makes an urgent moral call for an American reckoning with the legacies of racism in the criminal legal system and the human toll of the prison industrial complex.
“Beyond Innocence is a powerful story that underscores the many injustices in our judicial system and the huge challenge all ex-prisoners face regaining their lives.”—Albert Woodfox, author of Solitary
“Phoebe Zerwick’s Beyond Innocence: The Life Sentence of Darryl Hunt exerts a grip on the reader equal to any true crime nonfiction, but it speaks far beyond that. I knew Darryl Hunt and many in these pages who championed his cause and his causes. I saw Darryl regularly for ten of the 32 years covered by this amazing book. I celebrated his freedom from 19 years of unjust incarceration, his nobility of soul, and his achievements for criminal justice reform. I wept in 2016 when I heard what I believed to be his full sorrow. But Zerwick’s masterful detective work, relentless research, brilliant storytelling, and, more than that, her insights into the dark night and fragile light of the human heart illuminate not only the essential facts but the deepest truths of this profound tragedy. Beyond Innocence is anything but gooey polemic. But sometimes a single human story cracks open our once familiar worlds in ways that we cannot forget, and compels us either to admit that vicious, intentional injustice speaks for us, or to speak for ourselves in a call to higher ground. This story is an opportunity to rethink our lives that we cannot afford to ignore.”—Timothy B. Tyson, bestselling author of The Blood of Emmett Till and Blood Done Sign My Name
“In Beyond Innocence, Phoebe Zerwick provides a gripping account of the life and death of Darryl Hunt, and in the process explains how the trauma endured by those wrongfully convicted is fundamentally at odds with a happily-ever-after ending. Zerwick’s unflinching, intimate portrait of Hunt, exonerated but never truly free, leaves the reader with a story that is far more complicated and thought-provoking. This book will stay with you.”—Lara Bazelon, author of Rectify: The Power of Restorative Justice After Wrongful Conviction and professor, University of San Francisco School of Law
"Your moving and powerful book is truly special. There were times when I had to put it aside momentarily because I could feel the pain that Darryl and so many others experience in a system that is fundamentally racist. Thank you for shining a light on his story and the stories of so many others. There can be no change without truth."
-Judge Gregory Weeks, Retired Superior Court judge and former board member, The Sentencing Project
"Beyond Innocence is beautifully written and also shocking and disturbing. Phoebe Zerwick has crafted a moving story of one man's lifelong fight against radical injustice. She has also produced a lacerating indictment of a deeply flawed American justice system that systematically targets young black men."
-David Zucchino, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Wilmington's Lie
“Beyond Innocence is a singularly important book about the extraordinary costs of a wrongful conviction, put in the larger context of a deeply flawed system that makes such convictions inevitable.”
—James E. Coleman, Jr., Director, Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic, Durham, NC