Commentary, News

Vigil tonight for innocence crusader Darryl Hunt

Darryl Hunt

Image: www.innocenceproject.org

Criminal justice advocates (and justice advocates of all kinds) around North Carolina and the nation were shocked this morning to learn of the tragic passing of Darryl Hunt. As WRAL reported here, Hunt was found dead in his car in Winston-Salem early this morning after having been declared missing yesterday.

The Wake Forest University School of Law posted the following a little while ago:

Vigil to be held for Darryl Hunt at 8 p.m. on Sunday, March 13, at Emmanuel Baptist Church

A vigil will be held for exoneree Darryl Hunt, who worked closely with the Wake Forest Law Innocence and Justice Clinic, at 8 p.m. Sunday, March 13, at Emmanuel Baptist Church, 1075 Shalimar Drive, in Winston-Salem.

Hunt’s body was found early this morning in a vehicle off University Parkway. The cause of his death is still under investigation, according to the Winston-Salem Police Department.

The Rev. John Mendez, who has been involved since 1984 as part of the Hunt defense team, is hosting the vigil.

Hunt, who was exonerated in February 2004, was represented by Wake Forest School of Law Director of Innocence and Justice Clinic Mark Rabil.  Hunt was granted a pardon of innocence by Gov. Mike Easley in April 2004.

“Twenty years of wrongful of incarceration and 12 years of being a voice for the voiceless is what killed Darryl Hunt,” Rabil said this afternoon. “He embodied all that trauma  and took it on himself.”

Rabil was an assistant capital defender in Forsyth County whose zealous advocacy led to the release and exoneration of Hunt after 19 years of incarceration. In 1984, Rabil was court-appointed to assist a senior partner in his law firm in representing Hunt, a 19-year-old black man charged with the rape and murder of Deborah Sykes, a young newspaper copy editor in Winston-Salem. Though no credible evidence linked Hunt to the murder, he would spend nearly 20 years in prison trying to prove his innocence.

Following Hunt’s release, he and Rabil spoke at events across the country sharing Hunt’s ordeal to illuminate the issues of wrongful conviction, race and the death penalty. An HBO documentary, “The Trials of Darryl Hunt,” is shown to first-year Wake Forest Law students at Orientation and Rabil and Hunt would discuss the film and answer questions following the screening.

Hunt also assisted the Innocence and Justice Clinic on a number of cases, Rabil said. Through the clinic, Hunt worked with Experiment for Self-Reliance to help people get their criminal records expunged, did public speaking and talked to law students about his case.

Hunt’s 2004 exoneration is cited as the genesis of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission an article “Guilty, Then Proven Innocent,” published by The Atlantic on Monday, Feb. 9, 2015.

The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission was founded by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2007 and was the first of its kind in the nation. Since its nascence, the Commission has reviewed hundreds of innocence claims and conducted multiple hearings.

“Part of Darryl’s legacy is the numerous people who have been freed as a result of the Commission created because of his case,” Rabil added.

The Winston-Salem Journal featured Hunt in 2014 here.

Commentary

How many innocent people have been convicted by junk science?

The following post appeared earlier today on the N.C. Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty blog.

Reasonable doubt: N.C. says 900 convictions based on bad evidence

By Kristin Collins

This week, buried in a Charlotte Observer editorial, was a surprising admission: The N.C. Commission on Actual Innocence is reexamining 900 convictions in which the State Bureau of Investigation may have used unreliable forensic evidence.

In all these cases, the SBI used hair analysis to prove the defendant’s guilt. In most cases, that means analysts used a microscope to compare hairs found at the crime scene with the defendant’s hair, and said they matched up. This technique was used in North Carolina until DNA testing of hair became available, around 2003. We don’t know how many of the 900 are death penalty cases.

We now know that this kind of forensic “science” is junk. Subjective forensic evidence, such as hair comparisons and bite mark comparisons, have been a contributing factor in more than a quarter of the 329 DNA-exoneration cases in the U.S. since 1989.

Last week, the FBI admitted that it has overstated the reliability of hair analysis in virtually every case where hair evidence was presented, including 36 cases where defendants were sentenced to death.

Only three of the cases the FBI identified were in North Carolina, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a big problem.

Guess where North Carolina’s SBI learned its hair analysis techniques? From the FBI.

We already know bad hair analysis has contributed to one wrongful conviction in North Carolina: that of Joseph Sledge, who was recently exonerated after 36 years in prison. Read more

News

‘Tis the season for judicial introspection?

XmasLightsMaybe it’s the time of year, but it seems that there’s been more than a handful of reports these past few weeks about judges who are taking critical look at how court decisions are impacting their communities.

There’s this story out of South Carolina, where yesterday Judge Carmen Tevis Mullen vacated the 1944 conviction of a black 14-year-old boy charged with allegedly murdering two white girls.

As Reuters reports, George Stinney Jr. was convicted by an all-white jury after a one-day trial and a 10-minute jury deliberation and died soon after in the electric chair.  He was the youngest person executed in the United States in the past century.

Finding that Stinney did not receive a fair trial, Judge Mullen wrote:

From time to time we are called to look back to examine our still-recent history and correct injustice where possible. I can think of no greater injustice than a violation of one’s constitutional rights, which has been proven to me in this case by a preponderance of the evidence standard.

Then there’s this — one judge’s regrets about harsh sentences he was forced to hand down under federal sentencing guidelines.

Recalling how those guidelines came about, U.S. District Judge John Gleeson in Brooklyn spoke to NPR this week as part of that organization’s ongoing look at their impact.

As NPR describes its efforts:

We talked with judges who expressed tearful misgivings about sending people away for the rest of their lives for crimes that involved no violence and a modest amount of drugs. We found a newly released inmate trying to reacquaint herself with her community in the Florida panhandle and rebuild ties with her grieving children after 17 years away from home. And we went inside a medium-security prison in New Jersey to find a lifer who says he deserves another chance. These people acknowledge that they broke the law and accept the need for punishment. But they say their decades-long incarcerations cast a shadow that lingers over their families, damage that far outweighs the wrongs they did to put them in prison.

Here’s what Gleeson had to say about the underpinnings of the guidelines:

This was a different time in our history. Crime rates were way up, there was a lot of violence that was perceived to be associated with crack at the time. People in Congress meant well. I don’t mean to suggest otherwise. But it just turns out that policy is wrong. It was wrong at the time.

 

Commentary

Yet another exoneration demonstrates desperate need for reform

You know something’s dreadfully wrong with your system of criminal justice when the full exoneration of innocent men convicted of heinous crimes keeps happening over and over. Another one occurred in North Carolina today when Willie Womble — a man who has spent 39 of his 60 years on the planet incarcerated for a crime he did not commit — was cleared of a crime that occurred in 1975.

Good lord! How do the still-living people who had a role in such a miscarriage of justice sleep at night?

Obviously, there’s no getting Mr. Womble back his life that the people of North Carolina and their officers and employees wrongfully and tragically stole, but here are a few things that Gov. McCrory ought to consider doing immediately:

1) Ordering the immediate commutation of all death sentences in the state to life in prison,

2) Taking whatever steps are necessary to provide for a dramatic increase in the budget and staffing of the Innocence Inquiry Commission (and maybe the private nonprofit known as the NC Center on Actual Innocence as well) along with the directive that it (they) undertake a review of a vastly larger number of the state’s existing murder convictions — if not all of them, and

3) Announcing that he will no longer approve of any new death sentences in the state until — at a minimum — a complete and full review of every such case has occurred.

Commentary

Good news and a sobering reminder

We’ll take good news where we can find it these days and this one from yesterday’s Raleigh News & Observer certainly seems worth celebrating.

Conservative anti-death penalty group active in NC

A North Carolina chapter of a national network of conservatives that wants to put the brakes on — if not outright abolish — the death penalty has become active this year.

A number of prominent Republicans have joined N.C. Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty: Les Merritt, the former state auditor; Ernie Pearson, a former assistant commerce secretary; David Robinson, once the Wake County GOP chairman; Marshall Hurley, former state Republican Party general counsel; Steve Monks, former Durham County GOP chairman; Mark Edwards, the Nash County GOP chairman; and Gerald Galloway, retired police chief in Southern Pines….

The conservative group takes its position based on their belief that the death penalty doesn’t jibe with the small-government philosophy. They also say mistaken convictions, the emotional impact on victims’ families and their pro-life stance are among the reasons people have become members.

Hyden worked for the National Rifle Association and ran a congressional campaign in western North Carolina. The other national coordinator is Heather Beaudoin, who worked for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Meanwhile, in case you had any doubts about how North Carolina was saved from executing an innocent man by dumb luck, read Fannie Flono’s column in this morning’s Charlotte Observer, “The death penalty, luck and innocence.” As Flono notes:

Read more