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A story of forgiveness

ROME TOWNSHIP — Five years ago in February the cold steel bars of Darryl Hunt’s prison cell swung open for the last time. He was a free man.

Nineteen years of wrongful imprisonment were over for the North Carolina African-American who had been found guilty of the brutal rape and murder of a white journalist. It took almost two decades for Hunt to be exonerated.

But that freedom came with a heavy price — the price of relearning how to adjust to a society outside of those prison walls that had been his home.

“Prison makes you dependent on it,” Hunt told an audience at Ohio University Southern’s Proctorville Center Tuesday morning. “They tell you when you to get up, what you can eat, what you can say and when. You are programmed. Then the prison says, ‘Get out. Now be independent.’ But you are waiting on someone to tell you what to do.”

Reaching out to other ex-prisoners experiencing the same adjustment traumas is one of the main missions of the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice, which he started after his release.

Detailing the Project and the long series of legal battles before Hunt’s exoneration was the focus of a forum at OUP for the university’s psychology and anthropology students.

Appearing with Hunt were Mark Rabil, the attorney who saw the case from the first trial to Hunt’s release, and JoAnne Goetz, Hunt’s sixth grader teacher who defended her former student throughout his ordeal.

This was the second time Hunt and Goetz had been in the area. Both came last year to Fairland High to talk to students who had studied “Long Time Coming: My Life and the Darryl Hunt Lesson,” the book that Goetz had written about her student.

“Everyday I still wake up thinking I am in prison,” Hunt said. “I was blessed I had people who supported me to make the transition.”

That is why the Freedom Project works on deprogramming those released from prison to make the adjustment to freedom with assistance in finding work and a place to live, besides psychological counseling.

“Once you get a conviction on your record, it is hard to find a job, to find housing,” Hunt said. “With certain convictions, you are banned from public housing. Everyone in this world needs a second chance. There is no one on this earth who hasn’t made a mistake.”

Right now, the Freedom Project has a caseload of 2,100 and so far only three have gone back into prison.

That’s because of the in-depth counseling the project offers the former inmates compared to the limited resources available through the penal system, Hunt says.

“We get to the real problem,” Hunt said. “Inside is the real problem. No one ever deals with what is going on with that person. No one gets to the real issue of what caused that person to commit the crime.”

Hunt was asked how he was able to endure 19 years in prison and countless trials knowing he had not murdered that young woman.

“A lot of it was my grandparents who raised me and made me go to church,” he told the group. “I learned about faith and hope and truth. They taught me to always tell the truth and keep the faith, which led me to understand about forgiveness. I can’t ask for forgiveness before I forgive others.”