A Journalist Uncovers A Struggling Advocate In "The Last Days Of Darryl Hunt"
It’s been just over a year since Darryl Hunt took his own life in a parking lot in Winston-Salem, an act that shocked a community of people who looked up to him as an icon of graceful strength.
Hunt served 19 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. After his exoneration in 2004, he became an advocate for criminal justice reform, touring the country to talk about his experiences and lobbying legislators for change.
After his death, former Winston-Salem Journal reporter Phoebe Zerwick set out to discover what happened in the final days of Hunt’s life.
After a year of reporting, she published a first-person account of what she found. WFDD’s Sean Bueter spoke with her about it this week.
When Zerwick invited Hunt to speak to a class she was teaching, she remembers hearing the turmoil in the stories he told about his days in prison.
I remember thinking that afternoon that there was so much of his story and his life that I had never really spoken with him about, as a journalist, and so much of his story that had gone untold. And then when he died, I suppose that idea came back to me that there was so much of his life that I didn't understand and that the public didn't understand.
On digging into the difficult final weeks of a man who many in the community saw as strong, compassionate and graceful:
Well I suppose the first thing I would say is we're all complex right and we're all flawed and I think he was all those things that we saw. But I think that what I found was that it came at a price.
The public had begun to see some of this because it became very public back in 2014 when there was an allegation of domestic violence. So it was pretty obvious that his personal life was unraveling. But what I found was, when I reviewed the autopsy report with the medical examiner – and I spoke to her at great length – [Hunt] had been telling pretty much everybody that he knew, everybody who was close to him, that he had advanced cancer and she could find no evidence of cancer. And that was, I would say, really shocking and shocking to the people who were very close to him.
I also heard from people who were close to him, especially his ex-wife, that he had been taking drugs and other people who were close to him had heard it but never really believed it. But I found that that was true. And what I finally concluded, and other people who knew him well came around to thinking about it this way, was that Darryl really didn't want to let people down. And the expectations of him were very high. And to admit to all of us that he was struggling like that, I suppose, was something that he just couldn't do.
On Darryl Hunt's legacy:
I think his legacy is that he worked very hard as an advocate for criminal justice reform. And there were some real advancements in North Carolina that I think he was partly or perhaps entirely responsible for. So, we have the first Innocence Inquiry Commission in the country which means that if someone has a claim of innocence we can go to the Innocence Inquiry Commission and get a hearing. And that is a really profound change.
And there are young lawyers all over the United States now who studied his case, heard from him and have changed the way they think about their legal practice because of their interactions with him. And I'm sure I'm leaving out a whole lot of examples of the kind of impact he had on people.
On how reporting the story affected Zerwick personally:
Well it certainly didn't affect my opinion of him. It makes me really sad to think that he saw suicide as the only alternative for him because the people I talked to about him cared for him deeply and really loved him. And I think there were people in this community who would have been there for him and for whatever reason he didn't feel that they were.
Phoebe Zerwick is a freelance journalist and director of journalism at Wake Forest University. She's also the author of "The Last Days of Darryl Hunt," which you can read here.
(Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the manner in which Zerwick's story was published.)