North Carolina

Darryl Hunt, wrongly convicted of murder, found dead

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. N&O file photo by Harry Lynch

Darryl Hunt, imprisoned for more than 19 years for a murder he did not commit, was found dead in a car in Winston-Salem early Sunday.

In 1984 at age 19, Hunt was charged with the rape and murder of a newspaper copy editor. 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 in 2004, exhibiting a calm that made an impression on friends and strangers.

He traversed the 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.

[Barry Saunders: Darryl Hunt’s remarkable presence will be missed]

In a statement, police said that officers received a call early Sunday of a person believed to be dead inside a car near the Wake Forest University campus. Officers found a man identified as Hunt, unresponsive inside the car.

Hunt had been diagnosed with cancer. A cause of death was not released.

At his original trial, Hunt was convicted of first-degree murder and barely escaped getting 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.

Zerwick now teaches at Wake Forest University and regularly asked Hunt to speak to classes. His last spoke to a group of her students in late January.

“Anybody I’ve ever met who has met him has been deeply touched by him,” she said. “He’s really moving to college students.”

Mark Rabil is an attorney who represented Hunt from his first trial through to his civil settlement with Winston-Salem more than two decades later.

Rabil said he knew Hunt was innocent the first time they talked. “He was very open and trusting,” Rabil said. “There didn’t seem to be any question about it.”

Rabil and Hunt recently traveled together to the University of Virginia for a program at its public policy school.

Hunt often talked about the problems of people released from prison, Rabil said. Hunt called it “homecoming.”

The trauma of wrongful convictions, years in prison, and the responsibilities he took on after he was free wore Hunt down, Rabil said.

“In the long run, he eventually got the death penalty,” Rabil said.

The Associated Press contributed.

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