Darryl Hunt spent 19 years in a North Carolina prison for a crime he did not commit. He was a vote away from being N.C.'s Troy Davis, the Georgia man executed last month for the 1989 killing of a police officer. Davis' execution spurred nationwide protests against the death penalty because there was doubt about his guilt. According to Creative Loafing Atlanta, nine of the eyewitnesses who testified at Davis' trial recanted their stories. Also, there was no physical evidence linking Davis to the killing of Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail.
Hunt, 47, faced a similar fate when he was accused of the rape and killing of local newspaper copy editor Deborah Sykes in 1984. Sykes had been on her way to work when she was stabbed 16 times. She was found naked from the waist down and tests revealed semen on her body, indicating that she had been raped. An eyewitness described a man matching Hunt as the killer. It wasn't until 1994 that authorities tested DNA found at the scene. It didn't match Hunt. Still, he was convicted a second time of the rape and murder. A full ten years later, Hunt was exonerated, and another man, Willard E. Brown, the man whose DNA matched the profile at the crime scene, pleaded guilty to the crime.
After Hunt's release from prison and a settlement with the city of Winston-Salem, he started the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice, headquartered in Winston-Salem, where he still lives. The group fights for the rights of the other 157 death row inmates in North Carolina, and for those who will be there in the future.
Creative Loafing caught up with Hunt following the Troy Davis execution. He talked about the death penalty, the justice system, and why he believes it all needs to be overhauled.0x000A
Creative Loafing: Looking back on your own experience, how did the Troy Davis case affect you personally?
Darryl Hunt: I was one vote away from the death penalty myself. If one person had voted the other way, that could've been me being executed [along with Hunt]. Our system hasn't changed much since I was released. It's still not about what's just, because if it was about what's just and what's right, Troy Davis would still be alive and the person who committed the crime would be locked up. The sad part is, with so much doubt, it still boils down to race, and race plays a big factor in all of this. If Troy Davis had been of a different color, then every court in the land would've demanded that [the State of Georgia] stop the execution. There is no way in the world that they would've allowed it to go forth with this much doubt. But, when it comes to an African-American, our system just doesn't care.
What is the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice?
When I was still in prison, I thought about doing something. I wanted to give something back to the community that had supported me. This was when the DNA had first come out. I didn't know what it was that I was going to do. When I got out, there was the Darryl Hunt Defense Committee, and I turned it into the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice. My initial idea was for the project to be about innocence and work with the Innocence Project and work to free other innocent men and women. But in the interim, I had to try and find a job. They told me that I was missing 19 years from my resume. That gave me a wake-up call as to what so many other brothers and sisters were going through as they were leaving prison. So I added another prong to it; we call it the homecoming — that is, to help people find housing, clothing, food and counseling. Counseling, to me, is the most important piece, because it's the deprogramming-from-prison piece. The third prong to the project is the advocacy piece, which involves speaking out about the injustices and trying to advocate for better laws. That's why we took over 100 students to the rally for Troy Davis in Atlanta, because it's going to be the students who change the system.
There was a huge outcry on social media and protests around the country against the Davis execution. What's your advice to people who want to do more?
Continue to stand up and speak out, because there are Troy Davises right here in North Carolina and in every state. We have to be vigilant about monitoring our court systems, our courthouses, pending trials and attending these hearings. We have to question the so-called evidence and facts in the cases because innocence matters. We have to make our voices known and we have to continue to speak out. Here in North Carolina, the day they were executing Troy, they were freeing two innocent men in Asheville. [Kenneth Kagonyera, 31, and Robert Wilcoxson, 32, each spent nearly 11 years behind bars for the 2000 murder of Walter Rodney Bowman; they were released on Sept. 22. The N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission vacated the conviction. Since it was founded in 2006, the Innocence Inquiry Commission has cleared three people.] We are the only state in this country that has an Innocence Inquiry Commission that takes politics out of the arena and looks at the facts of cases.
People say the death penalty is a deterrent. What have you found in your research?
It doesn't deter crime. The death penalty hasn't deterred crime. People don't go out and decide if they are going to rob and kill people based on if they are going to get the death penalty or not. That's just something that is used as political propaganda. The reality is that it costs more money to put people on death row than it does to house people in prison.
Darryl, after all you've gone through, why did you decide to stay in Winston-Salem?
As long as I'm in Winston-Salem, they will always remember what they did to me, and hopefully it won't happen to anybody else. C
For more info, go to the following websites:
The Darryl Hunt Project: 0x000Awww.darrylhuntproject.org
The Innocence Project: 0x000Awww.innocenceproject.org
The North Carolina Center on Actual 0x000AInnocence: www.nccai.org
The Justice Coalition: 0x000Awww.justicecoalition.org
The NAACP's advocacy pages: 0x000Awww.naacp.org/programs/entry/justice