Darryl Hunt spent nearly two decades in prison for a crime he did not commit. He had spent half his life in prison before he was exonerated.
The Many Trials of Darryl Hunt Are Over
After being convicted of a brutal murder, Darryl was sentenced to life in prison when he was just 19 years old. Finally released in 2005 – TEN YEARS after DNA evidence should have exonerated him – Darryl dedicated his life to helping others who had been chewed up and spit out by the criminal justice system.
Darryl Hunt came to Salt Lake City in May 2011, to be our featured speaker at the annual Bill of Rights Celebration. A couple years before, he had moved our staff to tears when he shared his story to a large audience at the national ACLU Membership Conference in Washington, D.C. - and we became determined to have him speak to lovers of civil liberties in Utah. He did not disappoint; ACLU of Utah supporters gave him a standing ovation for his heartfelt remarks.
We were sad to learn recently that on March 13, 2016, Darryl’s body was found in his truck, in Winston-Salem, N.C., where he had was born and raised before being sent to prison, and where he lived after being released.
He had committed suicide.
Darryl made an instant impression on others when he spoke about his ordeal. He was adamant about not letting himself become bitter, despite the many wrongs that had been heaped upon him – all chronicled, stirringly, in the documentary “The Trials of Darryl Hunt.” He made visiting and talking with young people, especially those at risk for incarceration, a top priority.
“Who you choose to hang around with matters,” he told an auditorium full of awed Rowland Hall students in 2011. “You have to protect yourself, and keep yourself out of trouble. You don’t want to be targeted, like I was, based on who your friends are.” He told them that after what he had been through, he made a point to regularly visit ATMs for account updates, just to be caught on camera, just to verify where he was at that time, so other crimes could not be pinned on him. He admitted that he still had trouble sleeping through the night, nearly five years after his release.
During his visit to Salt Lake, Darryl also spoke to students in an alternative school program. When one student made a casual comment about not being afraid to go to prison, that he was tough enough to handle it, Darryl became instantly serious.
“Do you think this is a game? This is your life,” he said, softly but strongly. “You think it sounds like fun to be 20 years old, standing in a prison shower, listening to someone get attacked on one side of you, stabbed on the other? Prison is a nightmare.” The students instantly sobered, respect and concern, settling over their young faces. By the end of Darryl’s visit, there were tears, handshakes, and even a few hugs.
Darryl Hunt had the kind of credibility that nobody wants. He had a story that nobody should ever have to tell. But, despite the pain, he told it as often as he could, to help shed light on the many flaws in our criminal justice system.
Darryl talked about racism. He was convicted by an all-white jury, after various witnesses testified that the victim had been seen with “a black man.” Witnesses named several different suspects, also innocent of the crime, before settling on Darryl.
Darryl talked about the death penalty. Only one juror held out against recommending execution for Darryl; the other eleven jurors were ready to send him to Death Row. The state came perilously close to sentencing an innocent man to die.
Darryl also talked about forgiveness. Even when DNA exonerated him, and after another man finally confessed to the crime, the victim’s mother stated emphatically at his release hearing that she believed Darryl was guilty. In response, Darryl offered his condolences for her loss, and forgave her – and many others – for the 19 years of his life that he lost in prison, never wavering from his assertions of innocence.
Darryl is a reminder of the many things that can and do go wrong in our criminal justice system: the error-riddled death penalty process; the reckless manner in which some prosecutors seek convictions at any cost; the difficulties faced by an inmate who never admits guilt; and the incredible mental stress that incarceration (solitary confinement specifically) exacts on even the most decent human being.
To Darryl Hunt, who converted to Islam during his time in prison, we say, “Allah Yarhamak.”
To those who knew and loved and worked with him, we’re so sorry for the loss of this gentle, wise and inspiring man. He will be deeply missed.