The Last Days of Darryl Hunt
The last time I saw Darryl Hunt, he came to speak with students in my first-year writing seminar at Wake Forest University about what it was like for him to spend 19 years in prison for a murder he had nothing to do with. We met outside on a cold but sunny January morning. Hunt wasn’t wearing a coat and I could see he had lost weight since the last time I had seen him, but he looked rested and fit. We took a shortcut through the Starbucks in the lobby of the library to the building where I teach, and as usual in Hunt’s hometown, he was recognized immediately, this time by the women who worked the counter. They offered him free coffee, anything, it seemed, to take him by the hand and feel his presence. Polite as always, he smiled, but I could tell the fuss made him uncomfortable.
Hunt’s early-semester visit was the highlight of my composition course on wrongful conviction, a way for students, especially the white students, to connect the issues of race and justice that we will later study with a real person. Hunt played that role well. Soft-spoken, with a solid build and warm smile, he put people at ease. Ever since his exoneration in 2004, he had traveled around the country helping people understand the flaws in our criminal justice system through his story, which was one of extraordinary injustice. It was one thing for them to read about the mistaken eyewitnesses whose testimony landed Hunt in prison and his nearly two-decades long quest for justice, quite another to hear him speak about how he was arrested when he was their age, a 19-year-old kid hoping only that someone would listen and believe him when he said he was innocent.
One story Hunt told that morning dated back to 1994, ten years before his exoneration. His attorneys had presented DNA evidence proving that he wasn’t the rapist in the stabbing death of 25-year-old newspaper copy editor Deborah Sykes. Such evidence had cleared others wrongly convicted of crimes. But it didn’t clear Hunt. Instead, the superior court judge ruled that even if someone else raped Sykes, that didn’t mean Hunt hadn’t stabbed her. He was sent back to the Harnett County Correctional Institution, where another inmate, whom he called “Shorty Red,” met him in the yard.
“I’m glad to see you,” Hunt remembered Shorty Red telling him.
“What kind of sick joke is that?” Hunt replied.
“Ain’t no joke,” Shorty Red said. “I was getting ready to jump the fence” – prison-speak for suicide, because the guards in the tower will shoot to kill a prisoner who tries to break away – “but now that you’re back, I know I’ll be OK.”
As Hunt saw it, he may have lost in court, but in defeat he had saved another inmate’s life. It was a story that revealed the light so many saw in him.
The second story I had heard before. It was a darker story about the lingering trauma of what it must have been like to spend 19 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. I had never asked him much about those years, but every once in awhile he would hint at the horror. The night of his arrest in Winston-Salem, N.C., in 1984, the guards put him in a cell at the end of a corridor with a warning. “The last nigger we had in here we found hanging from the bars the next morning,” they told him. Hunt slept that night with his head by the toilet and his feet by the bars so that no one could reach in and strangle him, a habit he continued once he was in prison and skinheads targeted him with death threats because he was a black man convicted in the murder and rape of a white woman. Guards tried to lure him to hidden corners of the prison yard; when he refused, they put him in solitary, the hole. By the time he came to speak with my students, he’d been out of prison for a dozen years, but the fear of returning never left him. His alibi back in the Sykes case hadn’t held up: His witnesses cracked under pressure, so he couldn’t prove that he had not been at the scene of the crime, a field in downtown Winston-Salem, where, in the predawn light, the state’s witnesses testified that they had seen him. Now that he was out, he made a daily habit of stopping by an ATM machine, figuring the surveillance camera at the ATM would capture his image and the receipt would prove he’d been there, at that machine, on that day, at that time, an irrefutable record, in case he ever needed one again.
I looked around the room and could see that his words kept my students enthralled. He had that effect on audiences. But I wonder now whether he was trying to tell us something through these stories, something essential that we didn’t hear.
There are lots of stories out there about Darryl Hunt. There was the story the police and prosecutors told that led to his wrongful conviction. In that story, eyewitnesses placed him at the scene of the crime, either attacking Sykes, or just before or after the brutal stabbing. There were always pieces missing from that story, but it held up through years of trials and appeals.
There was the story his supporters told about race and injustice. In that story, Hunt was part of the long and brutal history of oppression in the South, a place where a black man could be lynched for something as minor as whistling at a white woman and false arrest was understood as a fact of life.
There was the story I told as a newspaper reporter, an investigative series published in the Winston-Salem Journal, which laid out the facts in a way that refuted the prosecutor’s version and set off a series of events that led to the arrest of the real killer in the crime. There was the story told in “The Trials of Darryl Hunt,” an HBO documentary that’s been screened around the world, which cast Hunt as a champion for racial justice. And there were the stories Hunt told, like the ones he told my students, about his years of imprisonment, stories that captivated audiences at film screenings, law schools and political rallies, spoken in a steady, deliberate manner that seemed at odds with the outrage they made us feel.
The story that has yet to be told, and might never be, is how Hunt came to be found by police early one Sunday morning in 2016, slumped dead in the front seat of a pickup truck he had borrowed from a friend. He was 51. By the time he was found, shortly after midnight March 13, he’d been missing for nine days. He had parked the truck, a white Ford, at a shopping center on University Parkway, a main north-south artery, across from the city’s coliseum, near a thrift store, a gaming parlor, and an all-night diner called “Jimmy the Greek.” The truck belonged to his friend Larry Little, a former city council member in Winston-Salem who had organized support for Hunt the entire time he was in prison. Hunt had been living with Little since the beginning of the year, about a mile away from where the truck was parked. Little and others had looked for him for nearly a week, but never noticed the truck in a well-lit parking lot so near a busy road.
News of Hunt’s death spread quickly. By that evening, dozens gathered for an impromptu memorial in the sanctuary at Emmanuel Baptist Church, where many of the same people had celebrated his release in 2003 and where one of his early supporters, John Mendez, is pastor. Theresa Newman, a law professor at Duke University, which had awarded Hunt an honorary doctorate in 2012 and where he spoke every year to the entering class of law students, talked about the impact he made on them, and his neighbor, a state legislator, spoke about his love of animals. A former client of the foundation Hunt founded after his release to help ex-offenders with re-entry said, “Darryl Hunt saved my life.” I told the stories he had shared with my class, stories that suddenly seemed steeped with meaning. “Once you’re hooked by Darryl you can’t be unhooked by Darryl,” said Mark Rabil, the lawyer who represented him for 20 years and remained his advocate and friend until his death. “It’s this strength, it’s this courage that you just can’t let go.” Mendez, the pastor, who had gone to the scene early that morning with Little and Carlton Eversley, another member of Hunt’s original defense committee, struggled to compose himself. “I didn’t know if I could do this, after last night,” he said. Mendez spoke about the anguish Hunt had suffered in prison and the ways in which we all internalize pain. “That was Darryl’s struggle,” he said. “We saw Darryl on the outside but a lot of us did not see Darryl on the inside.”
The formal memorial, the following Saturday at Emmanuel, raised even more questions about his life and death. Police had announced by then that Hunt had died of a gunshot wound to the abdomen, a shocking final moment of violence.
Television cameramen crowded into the church lobby with mourners, who quickly filled the sanctuary that holds more than a thousand. Most of those closest to Hunt were there – Rabil and activists from around the state who worked with him after his release to lobby for criminal justice reforms; Khalid Griggs, the imam at the Community Mosque of Winston-Salem, where Hunt was a member, and the rest of the clergy who had led the rallies in his support; Jo Anne Goetz, his sixth grade teacher, who later wrote a book about the lessons his case taught her about racism; and Hunt’s sister, Doris Hunt, unknown to him until his fame helped her track him down. James Ferguson, the noted civil rights attorney who represented Hunt at his second trial, was there, too. So were Judge Gregory Weeks, who presided over the first sentencing hearing under the Racial Justice Act, a law that Hunt lobbied for to provide for appeals in death sentences on the basis of systemic racial bias; Superior Court Judge Andy Cromer, who exonerated Hunt in 2004; and Pam Peoples Joyner, the director of the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice, now a community liaison for the city police department.
Behind the scenes, there’d been some question about where to hold the funeral. Hunt was a practicing Muslim most of his adult life, but Little, the executor of Hunt’s estate, had his body cremated, contrary to Muslim practice. Griggs, the imam, later told me that they held funeral prayers, or janazah prayers, for Hunt at the Community Mosque that Friday afternoon, for Muslims who had traveled from across the Southeast to honor him.
The service Little organized focused on Hunt’s public life, with a program that cast him as a martyr for social justice and comparisons by speakers to Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Eversley gave the prayer, Mendez a eulogy, and Rev. William Barber, the head of the state’s NAACP and the Moral Monday movement against North Carolina’s Republican-led Legislature, made a surprise appearance, delivering a second eulogy, later posted to YouTube, that addressed some of the turmoil he imagined Hunt had been feeling. “Too often our warriors can’t even be human, even for a public second,” Barber intoned. “The relief it might give to help, even this must die because very few, even those who look to them, can handle the truth, that even our heroes get weak sometimes, so they have to smile when only crying makes sense.” Little spoke too, a rambling talk about Hunt’s legacy that brought people to their feet and turned the atmosphere into something that felt more like a political rally than a funeral.
Little showed a video, listed on the program as a “Message from Darryl Hunt.” Most of it was scenes from Hunt’s public life combined with footage of a walk he made on the 30th anniversary of his arrest, past landmarks from that period of his life: the lot where the apartment building where his friend Sammy Mitchell lived; the spot where police first questioned him; and the white-frame Lloyd Presbyterian Church where the early rallies for him were held. But it was the opening scene that I can’t forget, and neither can anyone else I’ve spoken with who saw it. Hunt is seated in an ornate love seat, upholstered in a white satin or brocade, looking directly at the camera. “If you see this,” he says, in a flat, lifeless voice, “I am probably already dead.” The woman behind me gasped. “Jesus,” she said.
The stories we told shaped Hunt’s life. Convicted him. Set him free. Made him a champion of justice. But his death seemed to be telling us that these narratives missed something. They didn’t exactly lie, but they weren’t the entire truth either. That’s the trouble with storytelling.
This is my attempt to get the story straight.
Hunt’s life as a free man began Feb. 6, 2004, in Courtroom 5A, an unadorned room without windows in the Forsyth County Hall of Justice, the same courtroom where he’d been convicted 19 years earlier in the murder of Deborah Sykes. Unbeknownst to observers, he had prepared himself to be sent back to prison, had even packed up his Quran and prayer rug, having no faith in a system that had let him down so many times before. Television and newspaper reporters filled the first row of benches. The filmmakers who had started their documentary in the 1990s flew down from New York, setting up a camera behind the bar where they had a clear shot of the witness stand and of Hunt.
Deborah Sykes’ mother, a slender woman with white hair and angular features, was there, too, having made the six-hour drive up from Chattanooga, Tenn. Evelyn Jefferson knew about the developments in the case, mostly because I kept calling her to ask for her response to Hunt’s release and the arrest of the real killer. In spite of the DNA match with a man named Willard Brown, Brown’s full confession, and the decision by the district attorney to join Hunt’s lawyers in asking that all charges against Hunt be dismissed, she didn’t believe the new version of the story. In a last-ditch plea against exoneration, she took the witness stand, her voice sharp with bitterness. “I would like for the court to know that I do not believe in Mr. Hunt’s innocence,” she said. “What you’re about to do today is set free a guilty man, who’s guilty of my daughter’s death.” These were hard words to hear on a day so filled with expectation.
Then it was Hunt’s turn to speak. Someone else might have ignored Sykes’ mother, or used the moment to deliver an angry tirade. Instead, he rose from his spot at the defense table and turned to speak to her, his voice breaking with emotion.
“Mrs. Jefferson,’’ he said.”I had nothing to do with your daughter’s death. I wasn’t involved. I know it’s hard. But I’ve lived with this every day trying to prove my innocence. I can’t explain why people say what they say. Or why they lie. Or why all this happened. Only God can. That’s how I tried to live my days in prison, knowing that only God can bring about justice. I just ask that you and your family know that in my heart you are in my prayers.”
Then he turned back, wiping a tear from his eyes, to wait for the judge’s ruling. I don’t remember the judge’s words. I imagine few do. But Hunt’s words, captured as the opening to the documentary about his case, defined his public image from then on. He wasn’t angry. He wasn’t vindictive. He wasn’t bitter. As hard as it was to fathom, he was full of grace.
Hunt and his wife, whom he had married in prison, settled into the house she rented on the city’s south side, not far from the Community Mosque, with her three children from a previous marriage, ages 8, 12 and 15. She worked as a nursing assistant in a dermatology clinic. Hunt worked to adjust to life outside prison. He was so in the habit of waiting for guards to open locked doors that he would forget to open doors for himself. He had to learn to use a cell phone and the remote for the TV. He still scanned the room, memorizing faces, always watching his back. And he began his daily routine of stopping at the ATM machine, just in case.
Hunt looked for a job, but with no work experience, even employers with menial warehouse work turned him down. In the spring, the state awarded him a $360,000 settlement for his wrongful imprisonment. He and April bought a house, in a middle-class neighborhood, with a yard. The following year, he started the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice, a nonprofit to help ex-offenders with re-entry.
The Winston-Salem City Council appointed a panel of citizens and two detectives to review Hunt’s 20-year case file. After nearly two years, they found evidence for the police department’s cover-up that neither his lawyers nor I were ever able to pin down. For one thing, investigators had known all along of the potential connection between the Sykes case and another rape. The victim in that case had identified Willard Brown, the man ultimately revealed by DNA evidence as Sykes’ rapist, as her attacker, and a witness in Sykes’ murder had identified Brown, too. Police hid all that information and more to protect their case against Hunt. These new facts gave Hunt grounds to sue the city for civil rights violations. In February 2007, before the suit was ever filed, the city settled the case for $1.65 million, most of which was invested in an annuity for a guaranteed monthly income that would allow Hunt to support himself and April comfortably for the rest of their lives.
“The Trials of Darryl Hunt” premiered at the Sundance Film festival in 2006, and by the time Hunt won his settlement, it had been shortlisted for an Academy Award, screened at festivals around the world, and aired on HBO. Before the film’s release, Hunt had already been speaking regularly to high school students and law students and counseling inmates coming out of prison. He lobbied the state legislature on the death penalty, racial disparities in sentencing, and a host of reforms that would prevent wrongful convictions like his (his advocacy led to the first and only state commission in the country that hears cases of actual innocence and to reforms in many police departments in the way lineups and interrogations are conducted). But the film was what brought Hunt’s story to audiences around the world and made him a celebrity, a heroic figure in a triumphant tale of perseverance and faith. It opens with his exoneration in court, with the bitter words by Sykes’ mother and his graceful response, then traces the case, using gruesome crime-scene photos, news accounts of the trials, and footage of his courtroom defeats and of his release. The filmmakers, Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, weaved together scenes they shot in the early 1990s, when they drove down from New York to look into the case, with contemporary and archival footage to make the strong case that from the moment of his arrest, Hunt’s race made it impossible for him to get justice in the rape and murder of a white woman. With scenes of street protests and church rallies set to haunting music, it also evoked the racial divide Hunt’s case created in Winston- Salem, turning his story into a universal parable about justice. I’ve seen the film at least a dozen times and I am always moved most by hearing portions of an interview Rabil recorded when he was preparing Hunt to testify in 1985. The film layers the interview over photographs of Hunt at the time: a skinny kid, with cornrows, a broad forehead, and an impish smile. The soundtrack is scratchy, recorded in the predigital age on a cassette recorder, but the voice is familiar, that of the same steady, humble man I came to know 20 years later.
“Do you pray, Mr. Hunt?
“Yes. I pray every night.”
“What do you pray for?”
“Do you pray for any particular result in this case?”
“Yes, I do.”
“What is that?”
“That the police department would find the right person who did this crime.”
“Do you pray for anything for yourself?”
“What do you pray for?”
“That I could live a decent life.”
Hunt’s story shaped my life, too. Because of my work on his story, the Journal made me a full-time investigative reporter in 2004. When I left the newspaper four years later, I used it to establish myself as a freelancer. Largely on the strength of my work on his case, I landed a full-time job teaching writing and journalism at Wake Forest, where I have used his story to inspire my first-year composition students and help them understand how race shapes our justice system in ways that remain true today. Its details are woven into my family’s story, too. My memory of walking my son to school includes the image of Hunt, grinning at the wheel of his cobalt blue Ford truck with his stepson in the front seat, also on their way to Brunson Elementary School. At Passover every year, when Jews gather over a Seder dinner to celebrate the ancient exodus from Egypt, we read a letter Rabil wrote to Hunt in 1994, right after he was refused a new trial. “As long as you are shackled, so are we,” Rabil wrote. “Remember what Moses said to Israel before the Red Sea parted: The Lord himself will fight for you; you have only to keep still.”
I know Hunt’s early story up until his exoneration as well anyone. In the 2003 investigative series, I wrote about how he had been raised by his grandparents, how his mother was murdered when he was 9, how he never knew his father. By the time he was 19, his grandparents were dead and the small inheritance they had left him was gone, spent in part on setting up house for his girlfriend and her daughter. He was homeless, staying some nights with girlfriends and other nights with his friend, Sammy Mitchell. I also certainly knew the facts of the case: how he had been convicted on the strength of four eyewitnesses, one of them a member of the Ku Klux Klan; another a criminal who lied repeatedly to the police; the third, a hotel clerk who came forward eight days after his arrest (after Hunt’s photograph had been widely published in the newspaper and on TV news) to testify that he’d seen Hunt leave a hotel bathroom where he saw bloody water in the sink; and a fourth, a black man who’d been bullied into testifying it was Hunt he saw at the crime scene. I also knew the obvious and subtle ways in which racial bias at all levels of the criminal justice system made the conviction of a black man accused of raping a white woman almost inevitable. Perhaps I was naive, but back when I first reported on the case, I didn’t worry much about whether the fact that I was a white, female reporter would taint my reporting. I believed, and still do, that the facts, when I found them, would speak for themselves. That hadn’t always been the case. In 1994, DNA testing showed that Hunt was not the one who had raped Sykes. But in a series of convoluted rulings, judges found a way to uphold his conviction, saying that someone else could have been the rapist and that jurors would still find him guilty of stabbing her 16 times. I also knew about the DNA match with Willard Brown that led to his exoneration and how that match almost slipped away.
In my reporting, I had reviewed hundreds of pages of court filings and interviewed dozens of people, but I overlooked one critical clue. I had heard about a rape downtown six months after Sykes’ murder and looked into it, but dropped it when the detective who investigated told me that the suspect in that case had been in prison when Sykes was killed. The series ran in November 2003, with the first installment published on a Sunday. The next day, a woman called me to tell me about a crime that she always believed was related, the rape of her daughter-in-law in February 1985. It was the same rape I’d looked into earlier, but the woman on the phone told me that police discouraged her daughter-in-law from pressing charges against the man she identified.
I couldn’t ignore such a compelling call, and called the detective again, who told me again that the suspect had been in custody the day Sykes was attacked. This time he gave me a name, Willard Brown. A quick records check supported the detective’s claim that Brown was in custody the day Sykes was murdered. I should have known better to stop there, but with my work already edited and laid out on the page I was out of time. I hastily wrote about the second rape as an unexplored lead, another flaw in the deeply flawed case against Hunt.
When the series ran, a court order was pending, the one that prompted my investigation, for new DNA testing. A month later, the state ran the new DNA evidence against its database and came up with a near match, which led police to look again at Brown, a 43-year-old man with a long criminal record. A closer look at the record showed that while he had still been under state supervision the day Sykes was murdered, he hadn’t actually been in prison. DNA testing matched him to the rape and he gave a full confession. He is now serving a life sentence plus 10 years.My professional role in Hunt’s story ended when I left the newspaper, but I kept up with him informally, mostly through Rabil, whose life was shaped by it in ways more profound than mine. Rabil describes some of those experiences in a 2012 article he wrote for the Albany Law Review titled “My Three Decades with Darryl Hunt,” which is part case study, part memoir, part warning about the pitfalls of tunnel vision and our belief in reason and action. In it, Rabil tells how other lawyers in town ridiculed him for his relentless dedication to Hunt’s case and how Hunt’s post-conviction appeals and losses coincided with his first wife’s battle with cancer and then her death. Throughout, Rabil was driven by a burning anger. “I think I broke my hand when I slammed it on the courthouse as I left following my brief statement to the media,” he wrote Hunt in 1994, in the same letter I read every year at Passover. “So it will probably be a long time before I stop feeling this day. I went to the YMCA and ran one mile for each year of this case in the wind and rain.”
Rabil also landed at Wake Forest, directing the law school’s Innocence and Justice Clinic, which reviews claims of wrongful conviction like Hunt’s. Occasionally I would see Hunt and Rabil together, when I was invited to sit on panels with them at screenings of the documentary. Hunt never watched the film, but instead appeared at the rear of the theatre as the credits rolled; seeing his ordeal unfold on the screen had become too painful to watch. He suffered panic attacks, too. They could be triggered by something as simple as seeing a lime green light, which reminded him of the day he was convicted, when he stared at a reporter’s lime green socks to keep his composure in front of the cameras. Rabil called them symptoms of what he believed was post-traumatic stress disorder.
Rabil kept me up to date on Hunt, the way friends talk about another friend in trouble. By 2014, Hunt and his wife, April, had separated and he had moved to Durham. In 2015, Hunt moved to Atlanta to live with a half-sister. Sometime that year, I heard through Rabil that Hunt had prostate cancer. Rabil had driven to Atlanta, hoping Hunt would allow him to accompany him to the doctor to discuss treatment options. Instead, they met afterward for coffee. We chalked it up to stubborn pride. The following January, when it was time for Rabil to speak to my composition class, he told me Hunt had moved back to town, and he’d see if Hunt could come, too. I met Hunt outside the library, unsure how much to ask after his health, so I played it safe. “Welcome back,” I said, or something close to it. “I’m sorry you’ve been sick, but you look good.” “Yea,” he said. “If I’m going to die, I might as well come home and be close to people I love.”
I hadn’t intended on writing about Hunt again. In fact, I figured I never would. My friendship with Rabil and Hunt’s work with my students meant I had lost the distance expected of journalists. But when Hunt died, the story pulled at me, in ways I couldn’t ignore. In part, I regretted that I had accepted his calm demeanor, which made him so inspiring to my students, but, I was now beginning to suspect, concealed a more troubled life. I fell back on what I knew best, a dogged reporting method developed over years in a newsroom, in the stubborn belief that if there’s truth to be told, it lies in the facts. I checked the court file on his divorce. I talked to the people who worked in the stores and restaurants at the College Plaza shopping center where he was found. I even tried tracking down the permit friends told me he had to carry a concealed weapon, but those are no longer public record. I hoped to find surveillance footage of the shopping center, but the manager told me they didn’t have a camera set up. I talked to anyone I could think of who had been close to him the last year of his life. And I pored over the Facebook posts that appeared within hours of the news breaking that police had found his body. One surprised me. It was a 10-second video of Hunt driving with April in a convertible, on a country road somewhere, with R&B playing on the radio. Hunt wore a red hat, April wore shades that made her look like a star. The moment looked recent and carefree.
I first met April in the summer of 2003, when I was investigating Hunt’s case for the Journal. I reached out to her through Facebook 13 years later, not knowing whether or not she would take my interest as an intrusion. She hadn’t been at the funeral, and at least in their divorce papers, it looked as though she and Hunt had parted ways bitterly. But she responded to my message right away.
We met at her home, the one she and Hunt had shared, one morning in May. She had prepared tea and a platter of cut-up fruit. She has an angelic face and smile and although I try to preserve some detachment when I talk with people for a story, it was easy for me to slip into a conversation that felt more like two girlfriends exchanging confidences than a formal interview. We met two more times over the coming months, for conversations that always felt as though I had crossed the line from reporter to confidante. I was right about the video. She told me she shot it with her phone on a drive they took up in the mountains in July, 2015, eight months after their divorce proceedings had begun. They were seeing each other in secret – in spite of the separation, in spite of a court order that required them to stay away from each other, in spite of the legal wrangling that had tied up Hunt’s assets for nearly a year, and in spite of the fact that he had a girlfriend. He had also taken her to Durham, where he was speaking at a conference at Duke University. Even later, after their divorce was finalized on Dec. 30, 2015, he would stop by her house and she would wave from the door or the upstairs window. She showed me some of their email correspondence and text messages from that time, filled with mutual expressions of love and regret. On Jan. 5, less than a week after their divorce was final, her phone lit up with a text from Hunt: “I love you. I’m sorry things went wrong,” he wrote. “You will always be my wife and soul mate. I’ll call you tomorrow. Insha-allah. Infinity plus plus plus!!!!!” “Infinity plus plus plus” was a phrase they always used together. She replied the next day: “I love you too and I’m so sorry as well. I’ll be here. Infinity plus plus plus!!!!”
They met when Hunt was out of prison on bond in 1989 and 1990 awaiting his second trial. April was 20 and Hunt was 24. The court sent him to live with April’s stepfather, Khalid Griggs, the imam at the Community Mosque, a member of Hunt’s defense committee, and his teacher of Islam. The Griggs household was full of guests, so April didn’t think much of the prospect of Hunt’s visit until she laid eyes on him. Her daughter Chanté was a baby then and she was pregnant and still involved with the father, and Hunt had started seeing another woman. But their friendship grew. They had breakfast together. He helped her with the baby. They watched television together. One afternoon they found themselves in front of the TV, with Hunt helping her fix her hair. They giggled when her mother spotted them alone like that together. They talked about their growing feelings, she told me, but left it at that.
When his trial began, she couldn’t join him on the hour-long drive to Catawba County, where the court had moved the case. And as the trial came to an end, and jury deliberations began, it didn’t occur to her that he would be convicted again. But he was, and he was sent back to prison, with no chance to stop by the Griggs’ house to say goodbye. “I just started missing him,” she said. “I missed our conversations. I missed having meals with him. I missed his interactions with my daughter.”
She visited him once, and after that they didn’t see other again for seven years. April married her children’s father and they had two more children together. (The baby she was carrying when she met Hunt died in infancy). She finished school and started working in a dermatology clinic. In 1997, her marriage broke up and her thoughts went back to Hunt. She wrote him. He replied. She visited him the next weekend in prison in Marion, N.C. She didn’t tell anyone, because she knew her family and friends would not approve. She had never driven out of town before on her own and the two-hour drive scared her; the prison scared her, too. But when she and Hunt sat together in the family visiting room, she found a steady partner, and as he once told her, he found solid ground. “He wanted to know what was going on with me,” she said. “He didn’t want to talk about what was going on in prison.”
She visited him every other weekend for six years. Sometimes she brought her children, then 9, 5 and 2, but she tried to time the visits for weekends they spent with their father. Sometimes, she brought Hunt’s friend, Nelson Malloy, a city councilman and former Black Panther who was paralyzed and in a wheelchair. But usually, it was just the two of them, holding hands, sharing snacks from the vending machine and talking. When the North Carolina Department of Corrections moved Hunt to Bunn, northeast of Raleigh, she found her way there. Eventually, he was moved to a prison about an hour from her home, in Salisbury, and April could visit more often. As she drove the prison gate in her black Toyota Camry, she could see him watching from a window that looked over the parking lot.
They married in 2000. Her family objected, but she didn’t care. On the wedding day, Malloy came as their witness. April left him at the prison and drove into town to pick up the marriage license. In her absence, Hunt learned that the U.S. Supreme Court had refused to hear his case, closing the door on his release. Back in the prison, she found him strangely distant. “Do you still want to marry me?” he asked her, after telling her about the court decision. “What does that have to do with us?” she replied. “If I can’t have you in this life, I’ll have you in another.”
The day of his release, Christmas Eve, 2003, passed in a blur. She was at the jail early, with a suit of clothes, a black shirt, white pants and a camel-colored jacket. I remember thinking that she looked serene. They went to the mosque to pray, then to a press conference at Emmanuel Baptist Church, where Hunt was the only one able to hold back tears. Then a friend offered to take them out of town, to get away from the press of the television cameras and, I suppose, from me and other reporters who wanted to talk about his first day out of prison. They headed east and stopped in Burlington, spending their first night in a random motel. His release felt surreal until he dozed off in the back seat beside her and the normalcy of the moment took over. She remembered thinking, “I can’t believe I’m in this van driving down the road and my husband has just fallen asleep. That’s when it hit me.”
When he was in prison, they had dreamed of a simple life together, but their life together was far from simple. Nightmares kept Hunt up at night. And wherever they went in town, people recognized him. Some wanted to congratulate him. Some wanted money. Some just wanted to shake his hand. Then the documentary was released. The travel and attention thrilled them – the adulation for Hunt and his fame were spreading far beyond his hometown – but she wasn’t prepared for such a public life, and she would notice in small ways the strain the role had on Hunt. He never ate at receptions because he felt he had to speak to everyone. And at home, he thought twice about going to the supermarket because he didn’t want to run into anyone he knew. “I just felt like he had to put on this face and be this person that he was not,” she said.
About a year after his exoneration, she began to suspect he was using drugs. Sometimes he would just stare off into space or disappear for hours at a time. One day, some time in 2005, she found a small bag of cocaine among his tools in the basement. She moved it so he would have to ask her about it. When he did, he told her it was just a little bit to make him “numb,” and then left the house without speaking more about it. That became their pattern. Desperate to know more, she asked around, learned where he where he was using, and followed him to drug houses around town. “I know the drug use was not for entertainment,” she told me. “I know he was trying to drown out his sorrows and his pain.” Eventually, he started using powder cocaine at home, alone in his room. She didn’t like it, but couldn’t stop him either. Hunt’s drug use added to the tensions at home, feeding her anxieties, and opening up a chasm of silence and reproach. “It was just every day not knowing what to say or do. I was walking on eggshells and if I said something, he’d bust out of the door again,” she said. “I lost part of myself and still lost him.”
Around the same time, her stepfather, Griggs, also heard talk of drug use, from inmates and former inmates he works with at the mosque. “They didn’t want to see him take a fall because he was so inspirational to incarcerated brothers,” Griggs told me. He remembers confronting Hunt before they made a pilgrimage to Mecca in 2007. “He didn’t deny it because he knew where I was getting my information from.” But he couldn’t persuade Hunt to get help and neither could April. Griggs asked Rabil to intervene, but Rabil didn’t believe them. Others I spoke with also heard rumors about drugs. April was uneasy about sharing this part of their life with me because she didn’t want to say anything to damage his reputation and she knows that some people will not believe her. I have wrestled with this question too, that maybe this is a part of Hunt’s life I should keep to myself.
Hunt managed to keep his turmoil at home private until September 2014. By then, he and April had separated for good, and he was living with Larry Little. His foundation had shut down for lack of money, but he kept up his advocacy work and speaking about his life. He was working that fall with Rabil at the law school’s Innocence and Justice Clinic and with students in my class on a writing project for the clinic. Meanwhile, Rabil was lobbying administrators at Wake Forest to bring Hunt on staff as a community liaison, formalizing the kind of work he did with our students. On Monday, Sept. 11, Hunt walked the neighborhood where he’d been picked up by police to mark the 30th anniversary of his arrest and later appeared at a rally in the church where Hunt’s supporters had once gathered, this time in support of another defendant in a case of wrongful conviction, all scenes included in the video screened at his memorial. I brought four students to the rally, so they could witness firsthand how Hunt inspired audiences.
That Thursday, he drove to April’s house, a decision that would shatter the image that had built up around him as a man of unwavering grace. What happened next is unclear. In April’s version, Hunt came to the door of the house they had shared in a jealous fit after driving by and seeing a strange car parked in her driveway. They argued. He pushed her and she fell. In Hunt’s version, he stopped by April’s home to pick up a leaf blower. She yelled at him and the argument escalated, with her pushing him and knocking his glasses from his face. April called the police. Three days later, the Journal carried this headline: “Darryl Hunt’s wife files for domestic violence restraining order.” Newspapers and television stations all over the state ran their own versions.
Most of us get the chance to work out our domestic problems in private. Hunt didn’t get that chance because his story is a public story and has been since he was 19. A restraining order was never granted against Hunt, but the next month, as part of their divorce proceedings, Hunt and April did agree to a mutual restraining order, meaning that they could not speak to each other or even contact one another, an order that remained in place until his death. Rabil put out a press release explaining these facts, but the damage to Hunt’s reputation could not be undone, and Rabil put the idea of getting Hunt hired on full-time at Wake Forest on hold. Hunt moved to Atlanta to live with a half-sister in the hopes of starting over again in a place where he could leave the house without being recognized.
In the days after Hunt’s death, Rabil and I talked many times. At first, we were simply trying to find out the basic facts, falling into the roles we each knew best, with me trying to dig out the unbiased story and Rabil advocating for his client and his friend. Rabil spoke with the medical examiner within a day or two of the autopsy. He worried that investigators would settle on a ruling of suicide too quickly, without considering the possibility of homicide. He wanted to make sure, for example, that she knew that Hunt had been getting care at the medical center at Emory University. Perhaps those records would provide a clue. The medical examiner read him part of the note found in the truck. It was dated March 4, a Friday, and according to the notes Rabil took of that conversation, it mentioned the lookout from Pilot Mountain, a state park about 30 minutes north of Winston-Salem. That week, Rabil drove there, wondering what Darryl had been thinking about during his final days. “I don’t know if I was looking for anything,” Rabil told me. “A sign or some sort of apparition.”
Rabil had kept all of his text messages from Hunt, casual notes between friends. We studied them, looking for clues. Hunt’s assets were frozen as part of the wrangling over his divorce from April, so there was a lot of discussion about money. Hunt’s truck got repossessed. The day Hunt came to my class, Rabil loaned him $200. They joked about living “back in the swamp,” their nickname for Winston-Salem. They made plans for a trip they made to the University of Virginia the day after Hunt’s 51st birthday, Feb. 24. In spite of all the trouble in his life, he and Rabil were also planning to go to a conference in San Antonio later that spring. Rabil knew that Hunt was seeing April on the sly, but figured that was Hunt’s business. He had tried to talk with him about treatment options for the cancer, but whenever he did, Hunt changed the subject. While he worried about the toll the divorce and the illness were taking, Rabil always believed Hunt had survived far worse and would survive those challenges too.
We also puzzled over the question of drugs. Two days before police found Hunt, a detective called Rabil to ask him if he knew anything about Hunt’s drug use. He told her he didn’t, but the questions got him thinking. He remembered Griggs asking him to intervene and how, at the time, he thought what Griggs was saying was part of that familiar pattern of lies he’d been fighting against for more than 20 years. But now that Hunt was dead, it began to seem more plausible. “I and a lot of other people held Darryl in respect and in a way put him on a pedestal and didn’t want to think of him as using drugs,” Rabil told me. “If it’s true, it makes sense.”
These speculative conversations with Rabil helped me begin to puzzle out Hunt’s last days, but I wanted something concrete that would make sense of his death. I ordered the medical examiner’s report and waited, knowing it could take weeks for the state to respond.
Dr. Anna McDonald’s phone rang about 2 a.m. Sunday, March 13. She was the on-call medical examiner in Winston-Salem that weekend. New in town, she didn’t recognize the name when detectives told her Darryl Hunt had been shot and she was needed at the scene. The police in Winston-Salem don’t always call a medical examiner to the scene, but with more than 30 years of history leading up to Hunt’s death, they told McDonald that they needed to take special care with the investigation. With a quick Google search, McDonald learned the basic outline of Hunt’s story and headed out to the College Plaza shopping center on University Parkway. She described the scene in her preliminary report:
“..... the decedent was found in a pickup truck with a .38 caliber revolver on his legs. The doors of the truck were locked and the ignition was still on, although the engine was not running. He had been missing approximately 9 days prior to being found in the car and a missing person report had been put in place. He left a note with a friend and a journal entry (dated March 4, 2016 at 1:25 PM) was in the vehicle.”
When I met McDonald over the summer, I was struck by her combination of clinical detachment and warmth. Slides covered her office desk, blown up photographs of her children hung haphazardly on the walls. She told me how she soon realized how important the story her autopsy told would be, both to those close to Hunt and to the rest of us who would want to understand how his life came to such as a violent and tragic end.
The cause of death was clear to her right away. During the autopsy, she found that the bullet traveled up from Hunt’s abdomen through his heart and lung to lodge in his left shoulder. He would have died in a matter of seconds, a comfort to those of us disturbed that he may have suffered a long, agonizing death. She also found soot staining his undershirt, evidence of a contact wound, which supported a ruling of suicide. She wouldn’t let me see the notes he left, but she said he wrote that he was sorry he had let so many people down. “I feel like some of these are his private thoughts,” she told me as she read over a scan of one of the two on her computer screen. “It’s just spelled out clearly that he wanted to end his life.”
Her work could have ended there, but a detective told her that Hunt had been telling people he had cancer, of the prostate or the stomach. She knew that would be important to people who cared about him. She looked for tumors in the prostate, the stomach and the pancreas. “The prostate and seminal vesicles are unremarkable,” she wrote, in dry language that would be easy for a layman to overlook. “No neoplasms were identified…” Translated, that means she found no evidence of cancer.
McDonald wanted to be certain, especially if her story was going to contradict the one Hunt had told so many. Tumors in the prostate aren’t always as large or visible as in the stomach, so she took more than a routine number of tissue sections of the prostate, making slides from seven different sections. She also made slides from the stomach and the pancreas, and then, following normal protocol, made slides of tissue from other organs – the lungs, kidneys, liver, heart and brain – and sent them to the lab for analysis. Again, there was no evidence of cancer. She tracked down medical records from Emory, where Hunt told friends he’d been receiving treatment for cancer. His records discussed surgery to repair a hernia, in May 2015, and follow-up care, but no mention of cancer. She found records at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, where she works, which mentioned weight loss and fatigue, but, again, no cancer. Even the notes Hunt left make no mention of cancer.
Police had also mentioned the possibility of drug use to her the night they called her to the scene. McDonald sent blood and urine samples as well as samples of liver and brain tissue to the state toxicology lab in Raleigh, hoping it would run a full drug screening. But unless the medical examiner suspects that drug use contributed to a death, the state regards a full toxicology screening as unnecessary when the cause of death is clear. In Hunt’s case, the state did not run the screening for anything other than alcohol. During the autopsy, McDonald did notice a bluish spot on the inside of Hunt’s left elbow, and found a bruise under the skin. The bruise is consistent with intravenous drug use, but on its own it proves nothing. “Somehow I feel like I generated more questions than answers,” she said.
Storytelling carries risks. In this case, I learned that the story Hunt told about himself during the last year of his life was probably a lie. I wondered, and still do, whether I should just leave it alone and let the people who loved him most believe that he ended his life because he was dying of cancer, let them believe that there was nothing anyone could have done. And let the rest of us believe it, too. It must have taken a lot of effort for Hunt to weave such a detailed story of a serious, perhaps terminal, disease, and to repeat it so many times. “How he concocted all of this and to fool everybody, even his girlfriend, is genius,” Mendez, the pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church, told me at the end of our second interview. “Tragic genius.” Many of those closest to Hunt have come around to believing, as I do, that he told them he had cancer in an effort to explain his weight loss and cover up his drug use. “I can say at this point, I really have no reason to doubt April,” Rabil told me recently. But I still worry that the revelation of drug use will discredit all the good Hunt did during his life. Carlton Eversley, one of the clergymen who supported Hunt from the get-go, talked about the end of Hunt’s life in a way that makes sense to me. “If there was an addiction there, I don’t think he would have written about it, but it would have heightened his sense of failing expectations,” Eversley said. Still, he added, “there’s nothing that could make me think less of Darryl.”
The struggles Hunt faced have been well-documented by scholars and journalists who study life after exoneration. There’s a moment of euphoria, followed by disorientation. Even such simple tasks as opening a door or driving a car can be overwhelming. Wrongful conviction shatters trust. Prison traumatizes. Grief and rage are common. Researchers also find that the men, and the handful of women who have been exonerated, struggle to reclaim their identity. Some exonerees find purpose in advocacy work. Others retreat from public life. Depression is common. So is drug and alcohol abuse. Hunt faced the added burden of celebrity. There have been 2,003 proven cases of wrongful conviction since 1989, men and women whose lives were destroyed much the way Hunt’s was.
Hunt would have been familiar with these findings through his advocacy work for exonerees. Just two weeks before he went missing, he took part in a meeting with the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, at which he and other exonerees spoke about their struggles. That day, in their last phone conversation, he told Little that the meeting had been a success because officials finally seemed to understand that exonerees deserved compensation from the federal government for the time they spent in prison. As was often the case, Hunt was one of the speakers who advocates believed had found a way to surmount the obstacles, said Saundra Westervelt, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro who is one of the leading researchers on the subject and also attended the meeting. Afterward, she recalled, a group from North Carolina was going out for dinner, but Hunt begged off, saying he was tired, and headed back to his hotel. “We wanted him to be what he seemed,” Westervelt said. “We didn’t want him to fail. I think we have to own that.”
I spent a lot of time retracing Hunt’s final days, thinking that those details would offer some insight into his death. I built a timeline, the same method I used when I first wrote about his case. I talked to anyone I could find who was close to him. I drove up and down University Parkway, stopping at motels where Rabil told me Hunt sometimes stayed when he came to town. I talked with storekeepers in the shopping center. It seemed so strange that no one had seen him in the truck that had been missing for nine days.
On March 1, a Tuesday, Hunt checked into the Baymont Inn, a motel on the north side of town near U.S. 52, which leads to Pilot Mountain. It’s an anonymous yet comfortable sort of place. The clerk there told me Hunt had stayed there nine times during the previous year, the year he lived in Atlanta with his sister. March 1 was also the last day Hunt’s most recent girlfriend had seen him. She had written Rabil the week Hunt went missing, frantic for help in finding him. After Rabil showed me her note, I called her. She and I have met several times since Hunt’s death, but she asked that I don’t name her because they tried to keep their relationship private. She told me how they had been sweethearts during middle school, the way 13-and-14-year-old kids are sweethearts. They took long walks around the neighborhood, rode their bicycles and, since she was a tomboy, played a lot of basketball. When she moved to another neighborhood, they stopped seeing each other, but she never forgot his smile and the comfort of his company. They had struck up a relationship in 2015, and she was devastated and confused by his death. While he was living in Atlanta, they spoke regularly by phone. He told her he had cancer and that the treatments were awful. Like Rabil, she drove down once for one his doctor’s appointments, and waited for him in the waiting area at Emory’s medical center. Like others, she had trouble believing the findings in the medical examiner’s report. “Why would he tell me he had cancer if he didn’t?” she asked me in November as she read through the report.
When Hunt decided to come back to Winston-Salem at the end of 2015, he stayed with her when he wasn’t at Little’s. He was broke, but she was happy to give him a place to live until the distribution of his marital assets was final. They talked about a future together, maybe out in the country somewhere. In February, they stopped at Little’s for some of Hunt’s clothes, and she found a pad with his writing on it. Hunt wrote about wanting to end his life, but when she asked him about it, he reassured her he had written it a month earlier, the day his truck was repossessed, and he no longer felt so desperate. “I read it all the way through and I said, ‘You want to commit suicide?’ and he said, ‘That’s just the way I felt at that time,’” she told me the first time we met, back in May. “I said, “Will you promise me?” and he said, ‘I promise.’ But he broke his promise.” She also had heard rumors about drug use, and once even searched his arms for track marks, but Hunt always chalked it up to gossip. Tuesday morning, March 1, she left her house for work, leaving him a plate of food and leftover birthday cake, a sheet cake decorated in the colors of his favorite football team, the San Francisco 49ers. He was asleep but texted her later that morning. “It seems as though I crowded you. I didn’t mean to crowd you,” the text said. “I didn’t finish the cake, but I liked looking at it. Thank you, Shorty.”
On March 2, April talked with Hunt for more than an hour about reconciling. She wondered if he had ever loved her. He reassured her that he did. Hunt and Rabil also exchanged texts that day, confirming plans for a conference. “D are you interested in going to Innocence Conference in San Antonio, Texas, April 7-10? If so I will see if Dean will approve travel $$,” Rabil wrote. “Okay yes I will go. Thanks. D.”
On March 3, his girlfriend started looking for him in earnest, going to Larry Little’s house, where she showed him the note she had found a month earlier. I haven’t seen it, but Little recited its contents to me from memory. “I hated to do it in your house, but I didn’t have the money to get a hotel room,” Little recalled Hunt’s words. “I don’t want you to question yourself about anything you could have done to change this.” Little continued: “Then he goes on to say, ‘Larry, don’t hold this against April. She was there before any money.’” Little was stunned by the note and began his own search. That day, Hunt’s girlfriend also went to April’s house. “Your girlfriend came by my house looking for you,” April texted him that evening. “Well, whatever is going on, keep me out of it. Thank you!” Later that night she wrote him again: “I hope that you are ok…seriously. It’s okay that you have moved on to another woman. I will be just fine. But stay away from the drama..ok?” There was no reply.
I kept looking for people who might have seen him that week. At the memorial, I learned that Hunt had spent most of January with a friend who was dying of cancer, a man named Anthony Burnette, whose mother, Gail, had been part of Hunt’s defense committee. I thought she might have seen him. She told me that after her son died, Hunt continued to spend his days with her family. He said more than once that he found refuge in her busy household, eating her daughter’s home-cooked meals, watching old westerns on TV, and helping her take care of her grandchildren. “Part of the problem was people expected too much of him and wouldn’t let him live his life like a normal human being,” Gail Burnette said. “I’m not sure he ever realized to what extent the public life was interfering with his personal life, his freedom.” She lives in a cul-de-sac just a mile away from the College Plaza shopping center where Hunt ended his life. He was at her home that first week of March, talking about his troubles, confiding things she will not repeat. “All I know for certain is Darryl had a lot on his mind that week and he was here every single day,” she told me. He left her house Thursday after dark, hugging her so tightly she thought her back would break. “I think about it and wonder if he knew that was the last time we would see each other,” she said.
The next day, March 4, Hunt checked out of the Baymont. If Rabil’s notes about the journal entry found in the truck are correct, Hunt headed north from there, on U.S. 52, to Pilot Mountain State Park. The Native Americans who lived here before Europeans colonized the region considered Pilot Mountain to be a spiritual place and early colonists called its rocky knob a beacon. Hunt liked open spaces, city parks, and long drives. From the parking lot at the top of the mountain, which probably would have been nearly empty in early March, he would have been able to see west and north to the Blue Ridge Mountains and south and east to the city skyline. His last journal entry, the one police found in the truck, is dated that day, at 1:25 p.m.
Beginning that weekend, those who were close to Hunt grew more frantic. There was a court date scheduled for the week of March 7 for a hearing on alimony. Hunt had told one friend that he had no intention of showing up in court. Little spent several nights that week parked around the corner from April’s house, hoping Hunt would appear. Thursday, March 10, April sent Hunt an email suggesting that he drop Little’s truck off at her house. “I won’t approach you at all. You won’t have to talk to no one,” she wrote. “This way you can go on about your business. Just don’t want to see you in trouble.” It wasn’t until the next day, Friday, that Little filed a missing person report, waiting that long because he worried that a police search might frighten Hunt. The photo of Hunt in the notice that went to local media shows him smiling, wearing a blue shirt and light brown vest. “Last known to be traveling in a white 1999 Ford F-150 pickup truck NC registration BDJ-9685.”
That was the night a police officer called Rabil and asked if he knew anything about Hunt using drugs. Rabil and a friend, who had worked with Hunt advocating against the death penalty, drove up to the Baymont and the cluster of motels near the interstate. Others checked out places where Hunt was rumored to buy drugs. The next day, Eversley, Mendez and Little sat in Eversley’s office at Dellabrook Presbyterian Church, held hands, and prayed. April sent another email: “I’m praying that you are okay. I know Allah has something better for you baby. Just hold on a little longer. Let someone help you. I’m very worried about you and I love you so much. Always have and always will. Infinity plus plus.” Shortly after midnight, the next morning, Little’s nephew spotted the truck parked in the lot near Jimmy the Greek, where he had seen it earlier in the week, and knowing then that Hunt was missing, stopped and looked in through the window. Hunt was slumped dead in the front seat.
It shouldn’t surprise me that the facts have led me to such a complicated story and that so much is still unknown. I knew Hunt as a man of courage who inspired people by his dignity and his grace. Without his story, told in a film that reached audiences around the world, it’s unlikely that we would have the criminal justice reforms that we have in North Carolina. Women adored him, but his personal life was a tangle of regret. His friends admired him, perhaps too much. He wanted a decent life but spent 19 years incarcerated for a crime he had nothing to do with and emerged a celebrity. Prison scarred him and I am almost certain that he used drugs to self-medicate. Some will think these facts diminish him. To me, they make him human.
There are details I never managed to pin down. I was hoping the police could shed light on his last days and the search for him once he was reported missing, but they declined a request for an interview. I never found any documentation of Hunt’s drug use, but I did find warnings about his state of mind.When April filed for divorce in 2014, she alleged then that Hunt was abusing drugs. She didn’t provide proof, but so much else of what she alleged in those proceedings turned out to be true. In her request for a restraining order, she checked off the box that asks whether Hunt had made threats of suicide. “Darryl has talked about how worthless he is and should die,” she wrote. She also asked the court to prohibit him from possessing a firearm. I’m sure these warnings got lost in the bitterness of their split, but looking back it seems clear that she understood him in ways that others did not.
I spent close to a year trying to arrange an interview with Little. At first he declined, saying he was too torn up, and then he ignored my calls and emails. I saw him in March, at a press conference by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation to announce a $100,000 scholarship fund in Hunt’s memory. It was the anniversary of Hunt’s death, at least the anniversary of the day he was found, and once again those close to him had gathered at Emmanuel Baptist Church. The fund will provide an annual $1,000 scholarship to a former inmate who is returning to college. Little was one of the speakers. “It’s one way for Darryl to speak to us and to help,” he said. “This grant allows Darryl to do some good on Earth today.” He explained how after they each had health scares in 2015, he and Hunt decided to make a video together as a way to “preach our own funerals.” But when I asked again for an interview, he refused.
Then, early in April, I returned to my office to find a voicemail from Little with the offer to show me the rest of the video, the one of Darryl speaking about his coming death that had so shocked mourners at the memorial service. “It was for public consumption,” Little said. “I think I need to at least let you see that because Darryl wanted people to know how he felt about certain things.” We met Friday afternoon at his house in north Winston-Salem, where he lived when I first interviewed him about the case. I noticed the loveseat Hunt sat on in the video right away. Little had warned me that he still had no intention of talking about Hunt’s last days, but I suspected we would talk, and we did, for nearly three hours.
During the year I worked on this story, I found that those closest to Hunt used their conversations with me as a way to work out their thoughts about his death, much as I was doing. Little was no different. He talked about the beginnings of the case more than 30 years prior, his squabbles with others involved with Hunt’s defense, and his disagreements with Hunt over his marriage and his personal life. It struck me, sitting in the house where Hunt had spent so much of his last year, how torn Hunt must have felt by these divided loyalties. “That’s a lot of pressure,” I observed. Little didn’t disagree: “He tried to please everybody. He’s got to try to please me. He’s got to please Mark. He tried to please April. He tried to be everything to everybody. I think it just tied him up in knots.”
Little had heard from others I’d been interviewing that the autopsy showed no evidence of cancer, but he didn’t believe it until I showed him the report and went over the medical examiner’s explanation. We’d been speaking for more than an hour and as the news that Hunt was not suffering from cancer came clear, another plausible explanation for Hunt’s weight loss emerged. “If it’s not that way, it’s obvious he’s using a lot of drugs,” Little said. He remembered rumors he heard over the years that Hunt was frequenting drug houses in town and a recent talk Hunt gave at city a recreation center where he told the audience: “I know you think I lost weight, but before you think I’m using drugs, the thing is, I have cancer.”
The video opened the way I’d remembered from the memorial service. Hunt is seated, his back to the wood paneling in Little’s living room. He is wearing a red track suit. A San Francisco 49ers ball cap, also red, lies beside him. But his tone is different from the way I remembered. “Good morning. Good afternoon. Good evening,” he says, forcing a sing-song, cheerful tone. “If you’re listening to this, I’m probably already dead.” Little told me a videographer had filmed it about six months before Hunt’s death, and edited it down to 15 minutes from more than an hour of footage to show at the memorial service. But once the video was done, Little decided against showing it because he was afraid mourners would be upset by seeing Hunt so thin, and in so much pain. He doesn’t mention cancer, at least in the segment I saw. He does talk about the people who meant most to him – his grandfather, who taught him to be truthful “even as he whupped my ass,” and three women who were active in his defense committee, women he called mother figures. He talks, too, of his desire to help people. “I know what it feels like to be homeless,” he says. “I know what it feels like to be hungry, not just for a day but for weeks.” That part seemed familiar from other public talks, but I was surprised to hear him speak about “Little Bit,” a prostitute he was involved with the summer of his arrest, who testified against him at his trial. He called that experience “the thing that hurt me the most,” not because of what she did but because he disrespected her. There was a lot of bitterness in what he had to say, especially about the way people treated him after he won his settlement from the city. “The saddest part of my life is once I received money, I had people pretending to be my friends all over.”
To hear Hunt’s voice helped me understand the depth of his anguish during the final year of his life. Perhaps it was easier for him to create a false story than to tell the true one, that he was not superhuman, that he could not overcome the trauma he endured in prison or the injustice of spending all those years locked up for a crime he didn’t commit, that the myth we built up around him as a man whose wounds had been healed by his own extraordinary grace and compassion, a story we needed because we all want to believe in the possibility of our own redemption, was founded on expectations for him that no one could have fulfilled. A lot of us kept those expectations alive, and I was part of that, up until the very end. But Hunt’s story should be his to tell, not mine.
At one point in the video segment Little showed me, Hunt stops, lost in thought, searching for words. If you believed he had a terminal disease you might think he was waiting for a wave of pain to pass.
“There’s so much, God, I’m trying to express, something that’s hard, it really is.”
Little paused the video. Hunt’s words sank in.
“I never, ever wish this on anyone.”
Phoebe Zerwick is a journalist based in North Carolina and the director of journalism at Wake Forest University. Her work has been published in Glamour, O,The Oprah Magazine, National Geographic online, and The Nation online. Research for this story was supported in part by a grant from Duke Law School.