As a writer, I tend to process difficult things by writing about them….and so I turn to this outlet as a way to process the death of a dear friend who died much to soon…..
Earl and I first saw Darryl Hunt shortly after Christmas in 2003, not long after he was released from prison, at the Winston-Salem WalMart. We recognized him from the news accounts. What struck us was his demeanor, he appeared to us to be mesmerized and perhaps overwhelmed by the incredible variety and sheer volume of items stocking the WalMart shelves. We were curious about the experiences of someone who is incarcerated, confined in a cage, for decades, for a crime they did not commit. And, we wanted to know how we could help.
We reached out to Mark Rabil (our daughters participated at the same gym) and soon we were having lunch at the LightHouse Café in downtown Winston-Salem. Mark offered to introduce us to Darryl and our decade long collaboration began soon thereafter
Anyone who has met Darryl, even once, is captivated by him. He is the most humble person, remarkable for someone who was so severely mistreated by the criminal justice system, and really by much of the Winston-Salem community for so long. He has a way of pulling you in. You want to be around him. He has an aura about him.
How could we not get involved in the social justice work that Darryl committed his life to?
- We served on the board of the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice
- We attended galas and holiday parties and the premiere of the HBO documentary: The Trials of Darryl Hunt
- Every Thanksgiving we donated a couple of dozen turkeys so that the associates would have something to contribute to their holiday celebrations
- We brought Darryl to our classes and invited him to give lectures as far away as Colgate University in upstate New York when we were on sabbatical leave
- Our sociology students were the first to work on the innocence part of Darryl’s project—not much publicized–, opening and reading letters from prisoners who sought Darryl’s help and support as they proclaimed their innocence
But after being involved in many different ways, we soon realized that as professors—teachers and scholars—the best way we could help Darryl was to understand Darryl’s experience in the broader context.
Many other people helped Darryl tell his story.
We set out to tell the story of Darryl.
- Why did so many exonorees look like Darryl? (46%, or half of all the people exonerated are Black men.)
- Why did so many exonerations involve the rape and/or murder of a white women by a black man? (A crime that occurs only 10% of the time, but accounts for nearly 70% of the exonerations?)
- Why are exonerations disproportionately present in a relatively small number of jurisdictions? (Cook County, Illinois—Chicago, accounts for nearly 10% of all exonerations nationwide along with does Dallas County, Texas and New York City)
And, what we learned, and what we have shared in public lectures, in our classes, and in many publications is that there are indeed patterns to exonerations because there are patterns to wrongful convictions.
As in all other areas of the criminal justice system, black men are mistreated. They are lied to, they are manipulated, they are railroaded into confessing crimes they did not commit. Prosecutors withhold evidence just to get a conviction. And, these are not just random events. They are clustered. They occur in patterns. They are not just a set of unconnected mistakes; they are in fact the deliberate miscarriages of justice.
And, as a result, hundreds of black men, (and white and Hispanic men), have spent nearly 20,000 combined years in prison for crimes they did not commit.
And equally tragic, when law enforcement and prosecutors collude to lock up any black man instead of the real perpetrator, the real perpetrator often goes on to commit other crimes. We know now that Deborah Sykes was not the only women brutalized by Willard Brown. The Innocence Project in New York City projects for the crimes of rape and murder that every time a perpetrator is free—and the wrong man is incarcerated—the real perpetrator commits, on average 3 more rapes and/or 2 more murders.
When we fail to get it right, everyone loses.
The more we learned about exoneration, the more we learned about the prison industrial complex, mass incarceration, and the process of re-entry. We worked with Darryl to research the impact of his re-entry program on associates who participated.
Our research revealed that associates who committed to Darryl’s re-entry strategies and programming were more successful than others in making the transition to life in the free world.
We could not have been more pleased when Darryl agreed to endorse our book which came out of the research we conducted with his associates
So, how do we continue to tell the story of Darryl Hunt?
We will continue to teach about exonerations in our classes and continue to show The Trials of Darryl Hunt. We will continue to do empirical research on exonerations and other aspects of the Prison Industrial Complex.
We will turn our research to the final question of Darryl’s life: How many years of life does wrongful incarceration, locking innocent men (and women) in cages, often for decades, innocent of any crime, rob from them after they are released? What is the impact of decades of incarceration and the stress of knowing you are innocent on the health and well-being of exonorees?
How many men (and women) like Darryl will die decades too early because of the accumulation of their mistreatment?
Darryl used to often say: “If it can happen to me it can happen to anybody.”
We say back: But why did it have to happen to you?
Today we grieve the loss of our friend. As Mark Rabil said: “He finally got the death penalty.”
It isn’t fair.