The entire innocence movement was deeply saddened upon hearing the news that exoneree Darryl Hunt was found dead in a car on Sunday, March 13 near Wake Forest University. He had been reported missing the day before, and a Silver Alert was issued.
Hunt was convicted for the 1984 rape and murder of Deborah Sykes, a North Carolina newspaper copy editor, when he was 19 years old. The case was racially charged, as Hunt was black and Sykes was white. Several eyewitnesses, including some who claimed to have seen Hunt with Sykes on the day of her assault, helped convict him. Even his girlfriend who had been arrested for an unrelated crime told police that he did it, although she later recanted before his trial. Hunt told jurors that he did not know Sykes and had nothing to do with her murder, but he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
Hunt appealed his conviction in 1989, and a higher court overturned it, stating that the prosecution should not have used his girlfriend’s testimony since she had recanted. He was released on bond while awaiting his second trial, and was offered a plea deal by the prosecution, which would entail him serving five years in prison if he pled guilty. Hunt rejected the deal, and was ultimately found guilty once again.
Hunt’s lawyers filed a motion for DNA testing, and when the results came back in 1994, they excluded Hunt as a match. He appealed for release, but it was not granted on the grounds that the DNA results did not prove innocence.
In 2004, Hunt’s lawyers requested that the profile from the DNA results be run in the state database. Upon doing so, the test revealed that the DNA matched Willard E. Brown, who was already serving time for another murder. Brown also confessed to killing Sykes. Following Brown’s confession, North Carolina’s governor at the time, Governor Mike Easley, pardoned Hunt and he was finally released from prison. His exoneration was due to the assistance of Mark Rabil and the Wake Forrest Innocence and Justice Clinic. Hunt recently celebrated his exoneration anniversary on February 6.
Following his exoneration, Hunt, like many exonerees, struggled with his reintegration back to life outside of prison. Among other problems, he suffered from depression and was recently diagnosed with cancer. Although they are still waiting for the final autopsy reports, police suspect that suicide was the cause of death. Hunt died from a single gunshot wound to his torso and there were no apparent signs of struggle. A handgun was also found inside the vehicle.
In 2007, he was awarded more than $1.6 million in a settlement as compensation for the 19 years he wrongfully spent behind bars. He established an advocacy group for those who have been wrongfully convicted called the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice, and helped people transition back to normal life after being released from prison. He also traveled around North Carolina with People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, advocating for the elimination of the death penalty and improvements to the criminal justice system. Hunt even traveled overseas for the documentary The Trials of Darryl Hunt, which detailed his wrongful conviction and exoneration, and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006.
Hunt’s life was celebrated at a memorial service on Saturday, March 19 at the Emmanuel Baptist Church in Winston-Salem.
Rest in peace Darryl.