In 2003, journalist Phoebe Zerwick wrote an eight-part investigative series in The Winston-Salem Journal about the case of Darryl Hunt, a Black man who had been wrongfully convicted of murder and had served 19 years in prison. Many close to the case believe her work was crucial in his exoneration which occurred just months later. After years of pivotal advocacy upon his release, Hunt died by suicide in 2016.
Now, Zerwick has written a book about Darryl Hunt and his story — one that she hopes makes cultural conversations about systemic racism, justice, prison reform, and mercy more accessible. She spoke about Beyond Innocence: The Life Sentence of Darryl Hunt with WFDD's Bethany Chafin.
On Zerwick's goal with this book as opposed to her 2003 reporting:
I wanted to write a story that went beyond the case, which had been pretty fully explored, and really understand the impact of the kind of injustice Darryl Hunt suffered, beginning with just the impact of the wrongful conviction itself — what that does to somebody psychologically, what that does to their sense of self and their being and their soul.
And then I wanted to understand what happened to him in prison, and the trauma of that experience. And also understand all the defeats that he faced in prison. Until he was exonerated in 2004, it was 19 years of defeat, and what that would have been like for him. And then I really mostly wanted the book to explore his life after prison and the difficulty of that experience. He accomplished a remarkable amount as an advocate, but he paid a high price for it. The burden of being a public figure like that was really difficult for him. And also, the advocacy work that he did was on the strength of his personal story. So, in effect, his job came to be retelling this traumatic experience that he went through.
On what we know today about how trauma can affect someone like Darryl Hunt who is wrongfully accused or convicted:
Yeah, so the book draws both on what he said about that experience, and what he wrote about that experience in letters to lawyers and other friends and also what he wrote about that experience while he was keeping journals. And then he did a kind of audio recording of his memoir for a time. So it draws on all of that. But the book also draws on the study of trauma. And what psychologists and scientists have found is that the effects of trauma live on in your body, so this kind of flight or fight response that we have, that builds up and gets stored in your body. And so that explains the kind of flashbacks that people have who've been through trauma or the anxiety attacks that people have or the panic attacks. And all levels of the experience Darryl had were traumatic.
On reforms that have resulted from Darryl Hunt's case:
Darryl Hunt left a remarkable legacy. So because of his advocacy, there have been changes in the way police departments conduct eyewitness photo lineups. And in the way many police departments interrogate suspects. There's also been changes in the way courts think about forensic evidence. And there are also a lot more prosecutors now who have been been to law schools where they teach about innocence cases. So there are more prosecutors who see their role as being something other than always just prosecuting whatever cases the police bring to them. So these are really important reforms that are aimed at preventing wrongful conviction.
One area that he was really passionate about, which people are just beginning to talk about in this country, is really how to reform our entire way, our entire carceral state essentially. So we have two million people locked up in this country, which is more than any other country in the world. And what Darryl Hunt recognized is, once you have a criminal record, and once you have been sentenced to a term in prison, it's really a life sentence. That's what the subtitle of the book comes from, that anybody with a criminal record is essentially carrying a life sentence, because that criminal record bars you from so many of the privileges that most of us share ... he really understood that it was overwhelming because it was almost impossible really to help somebody start their life anew which is what the expectation is — that you will go to prison, serve your sentence and come home and begin anew. And that's almost impossible for for many.
*This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.