The one time I talked with Darryl Hunt in person, he was walking down Fayetteville Street in Raleigh with his attorney.
I gingerly approached him, because “gingerly” is the only way to approach someone who’s done 6,935 days in prison and narrowly missed taking the dirt nap for something he didn’t do. You definitely don’t want to run up on somebody just awakening from that nightmare.
“Dude,” I said, and began introducing myself.
He smiled and said “Aw man, I know who you are. We used to read you in the joint all the time.” He said he was a fan.
Now, some of you may find it remarkable that I met a fan.
The most remarkable thing to me about my brief encounter with Hunt, though, is that he could smile so often. Even when he wasn’t smiling, he exuded a peacefulness that defied my understanding, because if the law had done to me what it did to him – convicted him twice for a murder he didn’t commit – you don’t even want to know what kind of hell I’d have sought to unleash when I got out.
I thought so.
Hunt spent 10 of those years behind bars even after DNA proved he was innocent, because the state and the Supreme Court then ruled that – uh, well, uh – he had an accomplice. Yeah, that’s it: an accomplice.
Stephen Dear, executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, said in an N&O story after Hunt’s death, “I think everyone who saw Darryl speak was deeply moved by the resilience and kindness and gentleness with which he spoke.”
Dear got that right, because when I left Hunt that day, I was in awe.
I saw him a few times after that, but never approached lest I become a nuisance. I wish now that I’d at least thanked and praised him for the dignity he displayed, for the gentleness he emitted. Even more than that, I should’ve apologized for what the state of North Carolina did to him in our name.
No one will get the chance to apologize now.
Hunt was found dead Sunday, his body slumped in a truck near Wake Forest University.
It was just last week that I reached out to Ronald Cotton, the Burlington man who was falsely convicted of rape and did 10 years. After attending a speech by Jennifer Thompson Cannino, the woman whose eyewitness certitude that Cotton was her rapist resulted in him losing a decade of his life, I wanted to talk to Cotton. After DNA proved his innocence, Thompson-Cannino and he became friends and even went on a tour of sorts, talking about the case and the unreliability of eyewitness testimony.
The Innocence Project, which helped set Cotton free after he had used up all of his appeals, promised to pass along my message to Cotton but cautioned that I shouldn’t expect to hear back from him. Seems Ronald Cotton doesn’t like to talk about what he’s been through, I was told.
That is understandable, way more understandable than Hunt’s fervor in speaking out against the death penalty and that beatific smile. Do you want to know what kind of spirit this cat had?
The Rev. Carlton Eversley, Hunt’s friend and chairman of the Darryl Hunt Project, told me that the day Hunt got out of prison the first thing he said was, “There are other Darryl Hunts in there.”
Odds are that not all of them will be as forgiving as Darryl if and when they get out because he was, as the Rev. Eversley said, “a remarkable human being.”
Ricki Stern, co-director of the award-winning documentary “The Trials of Darryl Hunt,” also marveled at his spirit. “We spent a lot of time with him when he was released,” she told me Monday. “He was a quiet, thoughtful person who, right when he was released from prison, was concerned about doing something for others. He really was an amazing guy ... a kind, gentle person.”
Despite my myriad run-ins with the law, the longest I’ve ever been locked up at one time for something I didn’t do was three days. That was too long, and I emerged bitter and angry. Now, try to imagine doing nearly 20 years, 10 of them after they knew you were innocent.
In the fictional movie “The Shawshank Redemption,” the narrator tells how wrongly convicted Andy Dufresne, who also did 20 years in prison, escaped: He “crawled through a river of [crap] and came out clean on the other side.”
Darryl Hunt walked through the same kind of river and came out clean. Eversley, pastor of Dellabrook Presbyerian Church in Winston Salem, said Hunt “emerged from prison a man of grace and forgiveness with a remarkable lack of anger and bitterness. That was a remarkable spiritual achievement. ... He converted to Islam in prison, but I told him he had more Jesus in him than a lot of Christians.
“If what happened to him had happened to me,” the Rev. Eversley said, “I’m not sure I wouldn’t have become homicidal.”
Friends said Hunt had been struggling with a lot of challenges. His wife of 15 years and he had divorced and he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Asked what he thinks caused Hunt’s death, Eversley said, “We don’t think anybody did anything to Darryl.”
Maybe not that night.