Reflections of an Exoneree Ten Years Later
It has been a decade since North Carolina inmate
was exonerated of a murder he didn’t commit, but he is still adjusting to a life of freedom. Hunt, who spent nearly two decades behind bars before DNA evidence proved his innocence, still struggles with worry that the nightmare can happen all over again.
reported that little things like leaving the house can give Hunt pause since he grew accustomed to his cell door opening and closing automatically for so many years. His concerns about the future have imposed a lifestyle that tracks his moves for him. He takes pleasure in going to the ATM every day, where a receipt of the day and time is printed for him and a surveillance camera records his actions.
“The fear of being picked up for something you didn’t do? I never leave out the door without that being on my mind,” he told the
Hunt was convicted twice of a 1984 North Carolina murder he didn’t commit. He was first convicted of the murder of 25-year-old copy editor Deborah Sykes in 1985, but a judge threw out the conviction because prosecutors used a girlfriend’s statements against Hunt at trial even after she had recanted them. While he was waiting for a second trial, he refused an offer to plead guilty that would have set him free. After nearly a year awaiting trial, Hunt was again convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1989. DNA testing on evidence in the case excluded Hunt five years later but he wasn’t freed until a decade later when the DNA profile was run in the state database and matched a man serving time in prison for another murder.
After he was exonerated, Hunt was pardoned by the governor and was awarded more than $1.6 million from Winston-Salem and more than $300,000 from the state. None of that, however, can make up for the years he lost.
Hunt maintained his innocence from the beginning but his cries were largely ignored by the white community after a local man came forward and told police he had seen Sykes with a black man on the morning of the crime and tentatively identified Hunt as the man.
“I could never understand why the courts turned me down. Now I’ve been out and working with the system on the local level and the national level, I get it,” he said to the
. “It’s political. Most people believe it’s about justice. It’s not. It’s the political will of someone who wants to be in power.”
Despite the DNA evidence, the victim’s husband and mother still believe Hunt had something to do with the murder. While Hunt’s doubters make it uncomfortable for him to be out in his daily life, he has chosen to remain in Winston-Salem to remind people that an injustice happened.
In an effort to help prevent future injustices from happening around him, Hunt works with the
Innocence and Justice Clinic at Wake Forest University School of Law
to help people get their criminal records expunged and serves on the board of directors for the
North Carolina Center for Actual Innocence
. He does public speaking and talks about his case and although he admits things have changed in the past 30 years, he said he doesn’t have much trust in the criminal justice system.
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