On Tuesday evening, author and journalism professor Pheobe Zerwick spoke to a packed room at Footnote. Zerwick’s new book, Beyond Innocence: The Life Sentence of Darryl Hunt (Atlantic Monthly Press), primarily focuses on the trajectory of Darryl Hunt‘s life post-release after he served nearly 20 years for crimes that he did not commit. Beyond Innocence appears to be an important work for readers interested in the negative effects of incarceration.
Zerwick’s journalism career is intimately linked to Darryl Hunt’s case. Her multi-part investigative series in the Winston-Salem Journal helped convince racist Winston-Salem that Darryl Hunt might be innocent.
Zerwick reminded the audience at Footnote that this week marks the sixth anniversary of Hunt’s death. I haven’t read Beyond Innocence yet. But I carefully read her long-form article, The Last Days of Darryl Hunt, when it was published. Zerwick is a talented researcher and writer. But I would have liked her to take on Tom Keith’s DA Office like she did when she was at the Winston-Salem Journal.
Though Darryl Hunt was a flawed vessel, he was never-the-less a powerful activist and authoritative voice on wrongful convictions and criminal justice reform. As soon as Darryl Hunt was released from prison, he alerted local activists to Kalvin Michael Smith’s plight. Hunt was advocating on behalf of Smith and other innocent Black men languishing behind bars until the weeks before his death.
Why hasn’t Zerwick used her considerable talents to investigate other wrongful convictions obtained by the Forsyth County DA’s Office? John Robert Hayes, a Black man, represented by the Wake Forest Innocence Project or the Forsyth County Five; five young men convicted of killing Nathaniel Jones (Chris Paul’s grandfather) are two excellent cases for Zerwick or her journalism students to examine. But instead of scrutinizing the institutional power held by Tom Keith’s DA Office, Zerwick went all-in on Hunt’s death. Again, that has some merit, but it won’t get any innocent people out of prison.
Hunt’s story was captured powerfully in the 2007 documentary, The Trials of Darryl Hunt. The Trials of Darryl Hunt is a time capsule that perfectly illustrates just how racist Winston was in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s still the gold standard of Darryl Hunt content. It’s the story of an innocent, poor Black man convicted of raping and murdering a white woman by a racist police department and prosecutor’s office that refused to free Hunt until his defense team solved the case.
Hunt’s case was “a legal lynching” plain and simple. Trials documents the amazing work of professor Larry Little. It was Little and Winston’s Black community that advocated for Hunt from the start, who funded his defense team. They sustained Hunt years before the Winston-Salem Journal seriously entertained the possibility of Hunt’s innocence.
Until an exhaustive review of Tom Keith’s questionable convictions from that era, other possible legal lynchings will continue to go unquestioned. We would like to believe that racist legal lynchings are a thing of the past in Winston-Salem, Forsyth County. But we can’t assume that old Jim Crow has left the county until we review the cases. An exhaustive review of Darryl Hunt’s life post-conviction and the personal demons that led him to an early grave do little to aid the many other Darryl Hunts serving time in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
Here’s a Google Drive file on Darryl Hunt mainly compiled from the City’s website. May it be of use to researchers, students, and activists: Darryl HuntAppendix 25 Governor Easleys Pardon of Darryl Hunt
— Winston Watchman (@WinstonWatchman) October 29, 2018