By Anne Blythe
Darryl Hunt’s wrongful conviction and highly publicized exoneration often put him in the spotlight as he worked to reform the criminal justice system that stole 19 years of his life.
As North Carolina’s most public face of the injustices in the justice system, Hunt exuded a sense of calm and dignity as he spoke out for the voiceless in his fight to change a carceral system that focuses more on punishment than rehabilitation.
When Hunt was freed from prison, he went home to a wife he had married while incarcerated. He was awarded nearly $2 million by the city of Winston-Salem and the state for the misconduct in his case. With some of the money, he founded the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice, through which he worked to help others return to better lives from prison, whether or not they had been wrongfully convicted. A documentary about his case and books written about Hunt put him in high demand as a public speaker.
By all appearances, many thought Hunt had gotten past the trauma of his conviction and incarceration. Yet despite his serene veneer at such events, pain roiled deep inside Hunt. That torment eventually culminated in his death by suicide in 2016.
Phoebe Zerwick, director of the journalism program at Wake Forest University, was haunted by the news. She had written “Murder, Race, Justice: The State vs. Darryl Hunt,” an eight-part series published in the Winston-Salem Journal in 2003 that helped free Hunt from prison in 2004. She had kept up with him over the years and had seen him several months before his death when he came to speak to her journalism class.
Digging for answers
Zerwick, who is also chair of the NC Health News board, started digging into why Hunt was found dead by Winston-Salem police inside a locked pickup truck he had borrowed from a friend with a gun and fatal wound in his torso.
The result from reading journals that Hunt kept, letters he wrote and talking with his friends, attorneys and others is “Beyond Innocence: The Life Sentence of Darryl Hunt.” At this month’s Health Care Half Hour, Zerwick talked about her book and the trauma that Hunt suffered from being wrongfully convicted of the rape, stabbing and murder of Deborah Sykes, a 25-year-old copy editor whose brutal killing infuriated the city.
“It brought up all of these old racist tropes that have been part of our history since our country began and there was tremendous pressure to solve the case,” Zerwick said.
One of the things that scarred Hunt for life, Zerwick said, happened shortly after his arrest. Law enforcement officers initially held him in a cell in the warren’s office and arranged a perp walk, so to speak, that gave the media a chance to show the city who was in their custody.
“They had this kind of cell in the warren’s office, so basically, they had him in a cage and all these people were there to look at him — the horrible rapist, murderer — and he didn’t want to lose his cool,” Zerwick said. “So he found something to fix his gaze on and he stared at — one of the reporters had these lime green socks — he stared at those socks so he could stay calm.”
Hear more of what Zerwick says about what she uncovered about Hunt’s life and death in this recording of Health Care Half Hour.
Green light a trigger
Years later, when Hunt was traveling for advocacy work with Mark Rabil, the attorney who helped free him, Hunt began to sweat profusely in a hotel lobby. Rabel asked him what was wrong. He focused on a light in the lobby.
“He said that lime green light was the same as the socks that reporter was wearing that I stared at when I was first arrested,” Zerwick recounted.
Though Hunt was never diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Zerwick said, “he clearly was having a flashback, a panic attack.”
Zerwick pointed out other incidents throughout Hunt’s incarceration that added layer upon layer of trauma to his experience. From his first night in jail, Zerwick said, there were threats against his life and other types of threats. At times, in a gambit to ensure his personal safety, Hunt would commit minor infractions that would land him in solitary confinement, which he thought would protect him from white supremacists and others in his midst.
But that strategy came with a cost. Studies have shown that such confinement, which often consists of 23 hours per day in a cell no larger than 8 feet by 10 feet, can lead to a lifetime of mental health problems. International human rights experts have determined that solitary confinement is tantamount to torture.
All told, Zerwick said, nearly four years of Hunt’s time in prison was spent in solitary confinement. The stints were not consecutive, nonetheless he sometimes spent months at a time in isolation.
Visiting an ATM every day
“People put in solitary are way more at risk for psychiatric disorders, substance abuse and suicide,” Zerwick said.
“One thing we know from trauma research is that trauma hardwires your body to continue to relive that trauma,” Zerwick said. “It doesn’t go away, and especially when you have what some people call cumulative trauma or complex PTSD.”
“You don’t come more resilient to trauma,” Zerwick added. “Eventually, it catches up with you.”
Signs of some of that trauma played out in Hunt’s return to Winston-Salem.
“Everyday he would go to an ATM machine,” Zerwick said. “He did that so he would have an alibi, a record of where he was. He didn’t like to sit in a restaurant unless his back was to the wall so he could see everything that was around him. He had an incredible memory for faces. This is something people who would work with him in his advocacy say is that he never forgot a face. Well, that’s because he had to be very aware of his surroundings while he was in prison.
“All those skills that protect you while you are in a dangerous situation — and the best analogy I know of is to soldiers coming home from war — all those skills that would protect you while you’re facing constant danger in prison situations are not useful in daily life,” Zerwick continued. “It’s hard to maintain a relationship if you can’t trust if you’re always looking over your shoulder. He didn’t sleep very well and he had nightmares. He had flashbacks.
“All of this hypervigilance is not useful in daily life,” Zerwick added.
Hunt couldn’t escape the demons.
For more on this subject, you can find Phoebe Zerwick’s book here:
Beyond Innocence: The Life Sentence of Darryl Hunt by Phoebe Zerwick
Health Care Half Hour is a monthly conversation between one of our reporters and health care experts, held on the third Thursday of every month. Previous sessions include a conversation on the use and overuse of involuntary commitment in North Carolina, a talk with infectious disease specialist Dr. David Wohl on the Delta variant and an examination of how hog farming in eastern NC has affected communities of color.