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Story of Freedom

PROCTORVILLE — Without saying a word, the quiet, almost shy, man in a three-piece suit mesmerized the roomful of young teens. They seemed excited just to be around him.

He didn’t have to say much. His story they already knew. After all, they had spent the past couple of weeks learning everything they could about Darryl Hunt from Winston-Salem, N.C. It was a story that resonated with those Fairland High students. A story of racial injustice, forgiveness and renewal.

Now at a special lecture Tuesday morning organized by Fairland High librarian Evelyn Capper, they got to the meet the man and JoAnn Goetz, the teacher who stood by him fighting for his freedom for almost two decades. The visit by Hunt and Goetz, who acted as moderator, was the culmination of a schoolwide read of the book Goetz wrote of Hunt’s story — “Long Time Coming, My Life and the Darryl Hunt Lesson.”

When Hunt was just a year or two older than they were, he heard the prison doors slammed shut.

And as far as the prosecutors were concerned, that was it. He would stay there for the rest of his life after his conviction for the brutal stabbing and rape of Deborah Sykes, a young reporter for the city’s newspaper. Factor in the reality that Hunt is an African-American and Sykes was a white woman, it was a crime that rocked the city.

But there was at least one person who believed in Hunt. That was Goetz, who had taught Hunt in sixth grade and refused to believe he was capable of killing anyone.

For almost 20 years Hunt stayed in prison until DNA evidence exonerated him and convicted another.

That is the story the Fairland teens studied and Tuesday they got to quiz the man they easily called by his first name. Questions ran the gamut, starting with what was the first meal he ordered after his release. Answer: T-bone steak. Others were more complex: How he was able to forgive his persecutors?

It was a question he answered easily.

“Forgiveness to me is if I ask God to bless me or forgive me, I must first forgive others or I don’t have the right to go to God,” Hunt told his audience. “Each day that I live I try to make sure I forgive others what they may do to me.”

He cautioned the teens to choose their friends wisely. If he had, those tumultuous decades wouldn’t have happened.

“We can gauge our friends by how they help us,” he said. “If he is truly your friend, he won’t get you in trouble.”

Know where you are going when you get in a car with your friend, he counseled.

“He can pull up in front of a store, rob the store and or steal something. Then you get pulled over by the police,” Hunt said. “You are part of the crime because you didn’t know where you were going.”

Today Hunt runs Project for Freedom and Justice that works to free other innocent inmates and reduce the recidivism rate of those released by helping with housing, job interviews and schooling. With a caseload of 1,200, only three have gone back into prison in the past two years, he said. He also lobbies states’ General Assemblies to get laws changed so others don’t go through the same ordeal.

After the lecture, students lined up to get Hunt and Goetz to autograph their books. One of those was Shelby Fuller, a junior at Fairland.

“To get to hear the story and meet Darryl and JoAnn …” she said. “It was awesome to see how she stood up for him.”