Note: This article mentions suicide. If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 9-8-8.

Since 1989, 72 men and women in North Carolina have been exonerated of crimes they did not commit. It’s part of a national tragedy of more than 3,300 documented cases of wrongful conviction—enough for most of us to have grown accustomed to the triumphant narrative of the news accounts that follow. 

Rarely, however, do we read about what comes next, or of the difficulty of healing after so much suffering. Beyond Innocence, The Life Sentence of Darryl Hunt is my attempt to tell one such story. 

After Hunt’s exoneration in 2004, his storyline appeared to be one of hope. He founded a nonprofit that worked with men and women coming home from prison to the “civil death” that follows those with a criminal record long after they have served their time. 

The HBO documentary “The Trials of Darryl Hunt” brought Hunt to national acclaim, giving him a platform for his advocacy. North Carolina’s Innocence Inquiry Commission, the first state agency in the country to investigate and litigate claims of innocence, exists because of Hunt. He is also partly responsible for the state’s 16-year pause in executions, a de facto moratorium while the courts consider appeals under the Racial Justice Act, a law inspired by Hunt’s case and lobbying efforts. It seemed Hunt had transformed the grave injustice he endured for the good of others.

I knew Hunt’s case well, having written a series of investigative articles for the Winston-Salem Journal that contributed to his exoneration. Each of his achievements made it easier for me to believe that he had won his fight for justice. Then in early March 2016, Hunt disappeared. 

I remember the dread I felt when I saw the missing-person notice online. A friend of Hunt’s found his body that weekend in the driver’s seat of a borrowed pickup truck, parked in a rundown shopping center across the street from the city’s coliseum. His death was ruled a suicide. And I realized, with sorrow and regret, that my earlier reporting had missed an essential part of the story. 

Darryl Hunt, left, wipes his face as he addresses the family of Deborah Sykes, during a court hearing in Winston-Salem, on Feb. 6, 2004. Hunt convicted twice and imprisoned for the 1984 slaying of Sykes, but DNA testing proved he didn’t commit the crime. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Instinctively, I grabbed a notebook and started tracking down anyone who had seen Hunt the last days of his life. I went to the shopping center where he was found and the motel on the north side of town where he had been staying. I puzzled over text threads with friends and lovers. 

My question was a simple one: What drove a man who had shown so much resilience to such a tragic end? 

Finding the answer led me to study the history of our criminal legal system and the policies that lead to mass incarceration. I learned about the psychic toll of imprisonment, solitary confinement, and repeated loss, made worse by the cumulative trauma of systemic racism that shaped every aspect of Hunt’s life. 

My search also required me to understand parts of Hunt’s private life that he had gone to great lengths to keep secret.

Before I continue, a brief history of Hunt’s case will help you understand the chapter reprinted below. Hunt was 19 when he was arrested in 1984, an unemployed Black man accused of raping and killing a 25-year-old white newspaper editor named Deborah Sykes. These facts of race and class made him an easy target for what was at best an incompetent police investigation and at worst a deliberate frame-up. 

Soon after Hunt’s arrest, a Black city councilman named Larry Little, known across the state as the founder of the Winston-Salem chapter of the Black Panther Party, rallied a steadfast group of supporters to raise money for Hunt’s defense. Through the tireless efforts of his attorneys, Hunt was spared the death penalty, but he was convicted in 1985 and again at a retrial in 1990 and sentenced to life in prison. 

During this period, he was also wrongly convicted in an unrelated 1983 death, one in which he was eventually acquitted. This lesser-known case meant that Hunt spent four years of his life facing murder charges for two crimes he had not committed. 

At the age of 25, he turned down a plea deal for time served that would have allowed him to go free in both cases. Such integrity is not uncommon among those falsely imprisoned. Ten years of appeals followed Hunt’s conviction in the Sykes murder, including requests for a third trial once DNA testing excluded him as the rapist. 

Remarkably, the courts rejected them all—even the indisputable DNA evidence. Such reluctance among authorities to admit error is not unusual.

In 2003, Hunt filed another round of appeals under a relatively new state law that allowed defendants to request DNA testing of evidence. Most importantly, the law required the results to be run against DNA profiles kept in a national database of convicted offenders not available in the 1990s when Hunt’s appeals were first heard. 

The new appeal prompted my editors at the Winston-Salem Journal to assign me to take a fresh look at the case. After six months of reporting, I realized that while I had not uncovered any new evidence, I did have a new way to tell Hunt’s story as a character-driven narrative. That approach reshaped the way many readers of the newspaper understood a case they thought they knew. 

My reporting also raised the possibility that police had overlooked an obvious lead. Six months after Sykes was raped and killed, another young woman was kidnapped and raped on her way to work, across the street from the newspaper office. The attacks were uncannily similar. What’s more, the second woman identified a potential suspect whose name, it turned out, police hid all those years from Hunt’s defense. 

The newspaper series set the stage for what came next. The state crime lab finally got around to testing the evidence in Hunt’s case, which led to a match with the suspect in that second rape, Willard Brown. When confronted with the DNA match, Brown confessed. And with the identification of the real killer, Hunt was released on Christmas Eve 2003. Like so many other exoneration stories, I and other news reporters told his story as one of triumph. 

Evelyn Jefferson, the mother of Deborah Sykes, wipes a tear as she addresses Hunt at a 2004 court hearing as judge Anderson Cromer looks on. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

For all the weighty themes Beyond Innocence deals with, it is most meaningful for me as the story of a remarkable man and the people who loved and fought for him. Much of the book relies heavily on journals Hunt kept and interviews he gave to me and others during and after his imprisonment. These allowed me to write from his point of view. Interviews with his wife, April Hunt, his longtime lawyer, Mark Rabil, and many of his friends add to a rich and human portrait. 

My biggest challenge as a journalist and a writer was first to decide whether I had the right to uncover Hunt’s secrets and then to figure out how to do so.

I still believe in the power of journalism to hold those in power to account by shining a light on their failures, even if that means prying into someone’s private life. Wrongful conviction incurs a terrible cost. When you do the math, the men and women our system of justice has derailed have lost nearly 30,000 years of life. I settled my own ethical dilemmas by telling myself that Hunt’s complete story, even with its dark patches, was too important to ignore. 

Ayyub Rasheed, a friend from Hunt’s youth, became a guide through this part of his story. We met shortly after Hunt’s death in 2016 at the mosque where he and Hunt worshiped. Wary of my motives, Rasheed stopped me from taking notes, let alone recording our conversation. “He was crying out for help,” I recall him saying. “Y’all didn’t listen.” 

The reproach stung. Over time, we developed an uneasy trust and eventually a friendship. I learned a great deal about the toll Hunt’s celebrity took. The willingness of those who knew Hunt to talk about his struggles also eased my fears about disclosing his secrets. 

Rasheed was right. I hadn’t paid attention before to the clues Hunt offered of his anguish. But now I could.

This chapter of the book, “The Golden Egg,” departs from a straightforward chronological structure. While the previous chapter tells the story of Hunt’s advocacy over the first 10 years after exoneration, this chapter revisits the same period to uncover Hunt’s private struggle—one far too many share.

Chapter 18: “The Golden Egg,” Excerpted from Beyond Innocence © 2022 by Phoebe Zerwick. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

Ayyub Rasheed and Darryl Hunt understood each other in ways that people who have never been locked up could not. They first met in the late 1970s in the liquor houses that lined Patterson Avenue. Hunt would have been 13 or 14 but already knew his way around the city’s rough sections. Rasheed, seven years older, could say the same for prison, having been convicted at 18 of breaking and entering.

Like Hunt, he spent his first months at Polk, the overcrowded processing center for men under the age of 21 that was known for violence and rape. In spite of that, Rasheed found camaraderie at Polk among hundreds of other young men looking for a card game or some pick-up ball. Hunt and Rasheed reconnected in 1993 in the Forsyth County Jail, where Hunt was waiting for hearings on the hidden evidence in his case and Rasheed was awaiting trial on a charge of rape.

They had much in common. Rasheed had also been raised by grandparents, having lost his mother in infancy, and now he was fighting what he saw as a frame-up in a rape case, which, given his long criminal record, he had little chance of winning. By then, they had both converted to Islam and were preoccupied with the law and Black liberation. 

Hunt introduced Rasheed to popular fiction by authors such as John Grisham and James Patterson, lighter than law books but still a good way to learn about the law. They also read weightier stuff, such as books by the political activist and Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver and the lawyer and activist William Kunstler. With one other man on the cell block, Thomas Michael Larry, who was awaiting trial in the murder of an off-duty police officer, they established order, with morning calisthenics, filling trash bags with water for weights, and afternoon quiet time for reading and study. 

“He was crying out for help. Y’all didn’t listen.” 

Ayyub Rasheed, Hunt’s friend

Rasheed and Hunt would talk about Rasheed’s rape charge, one that Rasheed denied. Hunt urged him to go to trial and fight for his innocence. Rasheed’s lawyer advised him to plead guilty because his long criminal record meant he had little chance at trial. Rasheed took his lawyer’s advice, which he now regrets. Once they left the local jail, he and Hunt were never assigned to the same prison camp, but they kept in touch. The week of Hunt’s release in 2003, Rasheed wrote him from prison. With two years left on his sentence, he was struggling to keep his faith and his heart free of bitterness.

I wrote to the imam a few times asking about you but I don’t know if he got the letters or not. I know that I let you and the brotherhood down for accepting a plea deal. Praise be to Allah that it’s about over.

When Rasheed was released in 2005, he looked Hunt up at the reentry project and they fell back into an easy friendship. Hunt loaned him money to buy equipment to start a cleaning business. Later, he gave Rasheed the keys to his truck and never took them back. They saw each other at the mosque for prayer. Often, they’d simply drive around town, with Hunt smoking Newports and drinking a Pepsi, old friends “chopping it up.” 

During these easy days together, Hunt always made a point of stopping at an ATM, even if he didn’t need cash. Without having to ask, Rasheed understood the routine. The memory of prison still dictated Hunt’s life, as it does Rasheed’s, to this day. At night, Rasheed sleeps with the lights on. He keeps a security camera monitoring his front door, partly against intruders but mostly for an alibi, should he need it. Likewise, Hunt wanted the receipt and the video record of where he’d been that day, just in case he ever needed proof. He wasn’t about to be sent away again for lack of an alibi.

Rasheed told me of their friendship during a series of interviews that began in 2016 and resumed in 2019. We first met at the mosque he attended, wary of each other. Later, he introduced me to some of Hunt’s other friends and the easy camaraderie Hunt shared with them. We’d eat lunch and I would listen to the men tell stories about their teenage years, of neighborhoods like the 11th Street Bottoms and of the old county jail, where Miss Atwater ran the kitchen and made the best apple crisp, and the way Hunt, when he was back in jail in 1993 and 1994, would sit on his cell bunk in boxer shorts and a T-shirt, case files spread around him, drinking warm Pepsis, smoking, in those days Kools, and doling out legal advice.

“You feel me?” Rasheed would ask, to make sure I was following the conversation. Most of it I did, especially their fierce love for Hunt.

One of the friends I met was Anthony Wright, born in 1965, like Hunt. He had been in and out of prison since he was 15 and now was working at a steakhouse as a cook. Like Rasheed, he reconnected with Hunt in the county jail in 1993, when Hunt was there for court hearings and Wright was coming down from a crack high. After Wright slept for two nights and three days, Hunt offered him a copy of a favorite book by Grisham, A Time to Kill.

“I don’t know how to read,” Wright told him.

Hunt gave him a legal pad and a pen and told him to write down every word he didn’t recognize. The next day, they went over each of the words on Wright’s list, beginning with “answer,” the first word he had written down. Hunt gave Wright a second pad and instructed him to write the words over and over again until he could recognize and read each of them. This was the laborious method Hunt had used to teach himself to read the books that Little, Rabil, and Griggs gave him when he was first locked up.

By the mid-1990s, Wright was making enough money selling crack from his “trap house” in the Piedmont Circle public housing project that he could afford to spend thousands on a tricked-out Ford Bronco, whose paint changed from purple to gray to black. Every once in a while, he would take his customers in a rented van to a city park at dusk. Wright would stand at a distance as the lookout, watching their crack pipes light up the darkening sky “like fireflies.”

When Wright was released from federal prison in 2008, Hunt brought him to the house on Reynolds Forest Drive for dinner. April was cooking lamb stew and gave Wright a taste. She is a good cook and so is Wright. “It needs a little bit of salt,” he said. She laughed and so did we, a laughter that helped me understand the spirit of this part of Hunt’s life spent talking trash with friends.

One chilly Sunday afternoon in March 2020, just as the pandemic began and drove us outside, we met at a park in the area that had been the Black business district of their youth, now dubbed the Innovation Quarter for its research space, breweries, and high-end lofts. Wright brought some photos he had found of Hunt that he wanted me to see. In one, taken shortly after Hunt’s release from prison, Hunt is seated on the bottom level of a bunk bed with Rasheed’s two stepdaughters, a bright pink comforter hanging over their heads from the top bunk, all three of them grinning. The photo was sent to Wright, then serving time in federal prison, and he has kept it close since then.

“Look how handsome he is,” Wright said. “I can’t see this. I’m about to cry.”

Wright grew up just east of where we sat, in the 11th Street Bottoms, the Black neighborhood people living in the city in the 1970s and early 1980s knew to stay away from unless their shoes were tied tight and they were ready to run for it. Rasheed lived to the south, in the Happy Hill Gardens housing project, a two-mile walk from where we sat, less if he dared to take a shortcut through the graveyard. Just north of where we sat was Hunt’s part of town, the stretch of Patterson Avenue where he had felt most at home.

All that was 35 years ago, a world away from where we now sat, yet present in the laughter and tenderness of the moment. Rasheed jumped up from the chair, pulled his shoulders back to demonstrate the pose Hunt struck as a teenager, his eyes squinted, a faint smile on his face, quiet as always, and, as Rasheed said, “high as a Georgia pine, with a cup of liquor in his hand.”

Prison separated them for more than a decade, but once Rasheed and Hunt reconnected in 2005, their friendship resumed and with it a dark sense of humor. One afternoon, after Hunt received his settlement from the city, they were riding around town in Hunt’s Infiniti, when he told Rasheed about one of the many women who were hitting on him. 

Rasheed had a theory about the attention his friend received from women. Hunt had gone to prison a bow-legged teenager and emerged a broad-chested man with the aura of a celebrity and a quiet dignity women found alluring. When word spread that he had settled with the city for more than $1.6 million, he became irresistible.

“You know what you are?” Rasheed said.

“Tell me.”

“You’re the goose that laid the golden egg.”

Wherever Hunt went, it seemed that someone wanted something from him. His work weighed on him—invitations to speak at screenings of the documentary, talks to give about his quest for justice, testimony to make about how he’d barely escaped death row. And privately, it seemed someone was always asking him for money or his time. 

Hunt didn’t mind as much the requests from men he’d known in prison. But he hated it when he couldn’t even run down the street for a quart of milk without someone from the old days asking him for a handout. In a 2008 interview, he put it this way:

You get the resentment that some people feel that, not that you didn’t deserve it, but if you don’t give it away, then you don’t deserve it. It’s a constant pull. It’s hard because everybody assumes that you have this allotment of money that you got sitting in a bank account that you can just give away. And I’m pretty generous. I give a lot of money away, but at the same time I have a family, too, and so it sometimes makes it uncomfortable to make those kinds of decisions. When you say “no,” it’s like, “Well you got it, we know you got it,” and I’m like, “No, I don’t have it.” That’s the, if I can say one bad thing, that would be the one bad thing about having settled and having every dime of your money . . . everybody in town know exactly how much money you supposed to have.

Once, he stopped at a gas station with a friend, who went inside to buy a snack. When Hunt went inside to pay for the gas, the clerk warned him that his friend had been bragging that he was getting as much of Hunt’s money as he could.

“You don’t owe them nothing,” Rasheed would tell Hunt.

But the expectations and the betrayal ate at him.

Hunt gave hints of his private struggles soon after his exoneration. In 2006, he and Rabil were in Washington, DC, for a screening of the documentary, followed by a panel discussion. They were waiting in a hotel lounge, where the décor featured mid-century retro furniture, when Rabil noticed that Hunt had broken out into a sweat.

“Are you OK?” he asked.

Hunt’s heart was racing, pounding in his chest. He hesitated before speaking.

“See that light over there?” Hunt asked.

Photograph of Darryl Hunt and Sammy Mitchell in August 1984. (Courtesy of the Darryl Hunt and Hunt Trials Collection at Wake Forest School of Law)

In the distance, Rabil noticed a lime green light, one of many neon lights in the hotel décor, except that this one took Hunt back more than 20 years to the day he was first charged with murder. 

It was September 1984 all over again. He was in the basement of the courthouse outside the warrants office where police had locked him up in a holding pen, a cage, really, that had always reminded Rabil of what enslaved men might have been kept in at auction, on full display for reporters who’d been invited over to witness the arrest.

Hunt had been a skinny kid then, wearing a black knit cap, rolled-up jeans, and white socks stretched over his calves, with an impassive expression on his face that concealed his terror. He had focused his gaze on the vibrant green of one of the reporter’s socks. 

He would use the same strategy of fixing his sight on some inanimate object each time a jury declared him guilty of murder, each time a judge refused to see the truth. Now the green light in the hotel lounge took him back to the moment his ordeal began. The flashback made his heart race. It was hard to breathe. He was not OK.

Hunt’s panic attack is a classic symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, for the body remembers what the mind tries to forget. If he was ever formally diagnosed, he never said. It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that years of wrongful imprisonment would leave those who suffer such injustice scarred, but the depth of these scars has only recently become a subject of research. That limited research suggests that post-traumatic stress disorder is widespread among men and women freed after a wrongful conviction. 

Virginia Lefever was exonerated in 2011 after 21 years in prison in Ohio for the murder of her estranged husband. After her release, she went back to school at South University for a master’s degree in nursing. Wondering whether others suffered as she did from PTSD, she conducted a series of interviews for her capstone course. 

Her study has not been published, but she said that of her 249 subjects, all but one told her they believed that the wrongful conviction and the years in prison left them with PTSD. Their symptoms ranged from hypervigilance, nightmares, heart palpitations, and panic attacks to digestive disorders. Even the man in her study who denied having the illness told her that he triple-locked his doors and kept a golf club beside his bed, symptoms she chalks up to unrecognized PTSD. “Pretty much we’ve all sort of embraced it as part of being an exoneree,” she observed.

A published study by researchers Saundra Westervelt and Kim Cook of 17 men and one woman who had been wrongly sentenced to death reported a level of despair that surprised even the authors. At first, their work focused on the trauma of wrongful imprisonment, what they had called the “sustained catastrophe,” with the expectation shared by many who work on false conviction that exoneration opens a new and happier chapter. Instead, the trauma lived on, returning in their dreams, in their emotional distance from others, and in their broken relationships. 

The researchers coined a new phrase for what they were learning: continuing traumatic stress. The traditional definition of PTSD, even of what’s called “complex PTSD,” does not account for the profound depression, paranoia, anxiety, and insomnia researchers were discovering, such that exoneration, rather than marking the beginning of a new life, adds another layer of trauma.

Their interviews also revealed feelings of survivor’s guilt, anger, and alienation. As Perry Cobb, who spent nearly ten years on death row in Illinois, told them: “I can’t say that my feelings were dead. I said that [they] had just fled . . . I didn’t have no feelings. I didn’t like. I didn’t hate. I didn’t dislike. I was just, I see you and that was it.”

Some of those they interviewed tried to face the trauma of their experiences head-on, through advocacy work, as Hunt had. Only half received compensation for their wrongful conviction. Many had trouble holding jobs and sharing intimacy, driving away the very people they loved and needed. Others found solace in drug and alcohol abuse. To the researchers, this seemed the least harmful of the options.

Hunt rarely turned down an invitation to tell his story, which meant that his role as the face of injustice required him to relive the trauma of his ordeal as part of his job. To borrow language Westervelt and Cook came up with, his advocacy work added another layer to his continuing traumatic stress.

His wife noticed the strain of these events. He never ate at receptions because he felt he had to speak to everyone. If the audience members had been paying attention, they, too, would have noticed his anguish. Hunt rarely watched the entirety of The Trials of Darryl Hunt. Instead, he would creep into the theater toward the end, just in time to speak. He told friends that watching his case unfold on the screen, with the emotional tension the filmmakers so skillfully evoked, was simply too much for him to bear. As his friend Rasheed told me when we first met: “He was asking for help and none of you heard him.”

When word spread that he had settled with the city for more than $1.6 million, he became irresistible.

Perhaps it was prison that prepared Hunt for the double life he led after he was released. In prison, he learned to wear a mask to hide his fear, his frustration, and his despair. Now, he wore a public face as an eloquent champion for justice, while in private he waged a battle all too common among men and women wrongly imprisoned.

Within a year of his exoneration, April Hunt began to suspect a dark side to her husband’s silence. Sometimes, he would simply stare off into space for hours at a time, or he would disappear without letting her know where he was going. 

At night, he had trouble sleeping, and even when he did sleep his dreams turned to nightmares. Islam as they understood it prohibits discussing nightmares; he never spoke of these terrors and she never asked. He spent hours holed up in his room. Some nights, he didn’t come home. As April came to understand the pressure he was under, she was at a loss for what to do.

Darryl Hunt, second from left, holds hands with his wife, April, after his exoneration hearing. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

When Hunt was in prison, he would tell her that all he wanted was a simple life: a job, maybe with the city, like his grandfather had, a family, and a house where he could putter around. Sometimes, early after he won his freedom, he was able to live that life. He would throw on a pair of overalls and a straw hat, like his grandfather wore, and work in the yard, a dog at his heels. But once he became a celebrity, that dream was gone. 

“I just felt like he had to put on this face and be this person that he was not,” April recalled.

One day, she found what she thought was powdered cocaine rolled up in plastic wrap among Hunt’s tools in the basement. Rather than confront him, she moved it so that he would have to ask her where it was. When he did, he told her the cocaine was something to make him “numb.” Then he left the house. That silence and reproach became their pattern. 

One day, a patient at the hospital clinic where she was working told her that people had seen Hunt coming out of drug houses. She began asking around to learn where he was buying drugs and followed him. Eventually, she told me, she’d catch him using powdered cocaine at home or popping pills, alone in his room. She didn’t like it, but she couldn’t stop it. 

“It was like boom. A boiling pot. Like mixing ammonia and Clorox in the same bottle.”

Ayyub Rasheed, friend of Hunt

Such deception is typical of addicts, and the betrayal she suffered was typical for their spouses. The tensions at home were terrible as the chasm between April and Hunt deepened. Finally, the stress created by Hunt’s struggle was more than she could bear. Her life, too, was falling apart. “I was walking on eggshells and if I said something, he’d bust out the door again. I lost a part of myself and I still lost him.”

Rasheed knew of his friend’s struggle with drugs, mostly opioids, but the code of the street requires loyalty, so he kept Hunt’s secret. As he saw it, they’d been poor together, back in the day, two “cats roaming the streets.” Now Hunt had money to do what he wished and needed a friend who would understand. 

Rasheed believes Hunt started abusing drugs in prison, maybe buying medicine from others incarcerated with him and probably relying on guards to bring in contraband. It was also easy to get Benadryl from prison infirmaries, even opioids for pain. Rasheed understood addiction, having beaten his own, and believed it would be futile to try to stop Hunt. 

Rather than talk about the pain Hunt was trying to numb, he made plans with Hunt built on dreams. They would start a construction company together, an extension of Hunt’s reentry project, hiring people coming home from prison to fix up run-down houses, then flipping them, and use the proceeds to invest in the company so that they could sustain the good work they wanted to do. They would also figure out a way to get Rasheed’s criminal record cleared. At the very least, they would learn to play golf, something to keep them busy in old age.

Sometimes, they’d ride around town in silence. Rasheed would watch Hunt swallow pills, ten at a time, and chase them with a Pepsi. Hunt was terrified of being found out. They would trade cars so that Hunt wouldn’t be recognized when he went out to buy drugs. Rasheed also booked motel rooms for his friend, because in addition to drugs, there were women. 

If Hunt asked, Rasheed would drive to drug houses for him and buy him opioids and whatever other pills he wanted. He still knew where to go from his days as a crack addict, and it was less risky for him to buy than for Hunt, whose celebrity status made him the subject of so much gossip. If Hunt wanted his help getting drugs, so be it. 

At least he could help keep Hunt safe. But it was clear to him that Hunt’s addiction had consumed him. “It was like boom. A boiling pot. Like mixing ammonia and Clorox in the same bottle.”

In spite of Hunt’s efforts to keep his drug use quiet, word did get out. Khalid Griggs first heard talk about Hunt’s drug use from Muslim men incarcerated with Hunt when he was still in prison—rumors that still cannot be confirmed—but he never confronted Hunt directly. 

Instead, when Hunt was released, Griggs encouraged him to get counseling. Muslims with prison records who prayed at the mosque and others Griggs worked with in his prison outreach continued to warn him about Hunt’s drug use, fearing if he were caught, the news could damage the reputation of the mosque. These men also understood how damaging it would be to Hunt’s reputation and to his advocacy work if word got out that the poster child for wrongful conviction was strung out on pills.

When April confided in her stepfather that she had caught her husband with what she took to be cocaine, Griggs confronted Hunt. Hunt didn’t deny it, but he also refused help. Griggs confided in Rabil, hoping he and others would be able to intervene, but no one would believe him. When Rabil asked, Hunt denied any drug use. 

He also had a ready answer to explain why Griggs would spread false rumors. They had had a falling out, he told Rabil, because Hunt was not contributing as much money to the mosque as Griggs expected. Addiction turns people of integrity into skilled liars. 

At the time, Rabil believed Hunt. It was easier for him to assume that Griggs was lying than to imagine that the man he so admired, in whom he had invested so much of himself, had succumbed to this all-too-human struggle.

Phoebe Zerwick is an award-winning  journalist, college professor, and author. Her book, Beyond Innocence, The Life Sentence of Darryl Hunt, is a finalist for the Southern Book prize in nonfiction. She lives in Winston-Salem, N.C. and directs the journalism program at Wake Forest University.