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Darryl Hunt committed suicide, Winston-Salem police say

Darryl Hunt speaks briefly to a small but attentive crowd at UNC on April 10, 2007.
Darryl Hunt speaks briefly to a small but attentive crowd at UNC on April 10, 2007. HARRY LYNCH

Darryl Hunt, who was imprisoned for more than 19 years for a murder he did not commit, apparently committed suicide, Winston-Salem police said Wednesday.

Hunt was found dead Sunday in a vehicle in a shopping center parking lot in Winston-Salem.

The Winston-Salem Journal on Thursday reported that police said a handgun was found beside Hunt’s body in the vehicle. Hunt had a single gunshot wound to his torso, and the vehicle was locked when found, the Journal reported, based on a news release from police.

In 1984 at age 19, Hunt was charged with the rape and murder of a newspaper copy editor in Winston-Salem. The case was racially charged. Hunt was black, and the murder victim was white.

Hunt spoke against the death penalty for years after his exoneration, exhibiting a calm that made an impression on friends and strangers.

He traversed the state with People of Faith Against the Death Penalty and traveled overseas with the documentary “The Trials of Darryl Hunt,” speaking about abolishing the death penalty and improving the justice system.

“I think everyone who saw Darryl speak was deeply moved by the resilience and kindness and gentleness with which he spoke,” said Stephen Dear, executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty.

At his original trial, Hunt was convicted of first-degree murder and barely escaped the death penalty. The conviction was overturned, and he was tried a second time in Catawba County in 1990, and again he was convicted.

After 19 years in prison, Hunt was exonerated in February 2004 after DNA evidence led police to Willard Brown, who confessed to the killing. After he was exonerated, Hunt was pardoned by then-Gov. Mike Easley. He was awarded a settlement of more than $1.6 million in 2007 and founded the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice, an advocacy group for the wrongfully convicted.

But Hunt was also haunted by his experiences, said those who knew him. He would use ATMs daily, not so much to get money but so he could create a time-stamped receipt and an image recording his location.

“Even after all this time – he still carries this kind of fear and anxiety, “ said Phoebe Zerwick, who in 2003 as a reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal wrote an eight-part series on Hunt’s case.

Expected to show remorse, the wrongfully convicted in America's prisons face a moral dilemma.

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