Group focuses on innocence, forgiveness

By Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — The Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice, a Winston-Salem nonprofit that works with individuals it believes are not guilty of crimes for which they have been accused or convicted, and with former inmates, is working with Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County to get former inmates involved this fall as volunteers building Habitat houses.

And, boosted by a new documentary, the Darryl Hunt Project also is preparing to hire a development director to raise money to sustain its operations.

Darryl Hunt, who served 18 years in prison after being convicted in 1985 at age 18 of the rape and murder of newspaper reporter Deborah Sykes, founded the Darryl Hunt Project in 2004 after DNA tests led to the dismissal of charges against him and a gubernatorial pardon.

The nonprofit works to promote “fair and equal” treatment to those it believes have been wrongfully convicted of a crime, and to help any convicts get back into society from prison.

“One of the main things we’re trying to accomplish is getting people who come from being dependent on the prison system to be independent,” says Hunt, executive director.

Income for the group, which has a staff of four and annual budget of over $204,000, totals $111,000 so far in grants and $50,000 generated through screenings at a Winston-Salem benefit and at film festivals throughout the world of “The Trials of Darryl Hunt,” a documentary, says Lyn Price, the nonprofit’s business administrator.

Since November 2005, the Darryl Hunt Project has received 130 letters from people in prison saying they were wrongfully incarcerated.

A full-time innocence coordinator investigates those claims and, if she finds they may be justified, sends the inmate a lengthy form seeking details and permission for the inmate’s attorneys to release information.

Based on a review of that additional information, the coordinator may refer the case to an innocence-assistance project at the law schools at Duke University or N.C. Central University in Durham or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The Darryl Hunt Project also provides re-entry services for any inmates once they are released from prison.

Coordinated by Hunt, the re-entry program accepts five to seven “associates,” who have been released from prison, for a 90-day program to prepare them for employment and help them find jobs, housing, medical services, counseling, education and skills-training.

On completing the program, associates serve as mentors for new associates.

As it does with associates working on its other community-service projects, the Darryl Hunt Project plans to pay associates who build Habitat houses.

Chairing the Darryl Hunt Project is Jennifer Cannino, a full-time homemaker and public speaker who was a rape victim in 1984.

The man she identified as her attacker was convicted and spent 11 years in prison before being exonerated based on DNA evidence.

Cannino later apologized, asked his forgiveness and became his close friend.

“Those who go into prison, whether they are guilty or innocent, don’t come out whole,” she says. “They come out fractured and broken people, and we as a society expect them to come out of prison and be functioning adults. Then the cycle just recreates itself.”

The Darryl Hunt Project, she says, aims to provide former prisoners with a voice, forgiveness and a chance to heal.

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