WINSTON-SALEM — A man exonerated of murder after spending 18 years in prison for the crime has started a nonprofit foundation to help investigate the innocence claims of other inmates.
Darryl Hunt said he began thinking about forming such an organization while he was imprisoned.
"I wanted to help other people, to give them a voice, because I know I was fortunate to have people supporting me and speaking up for me,'' Hunt said. "I was innocent, and I know how hard it is for people who are in prison to have voices on the outside to speak up for them.''
The Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice will also help support people who have been released from prison as they rejoin society.
Hunt incorporated the foundation this week and said he plans to finance it through fund-raisers and money he earns in speaking fees.
Hunt was convicted twice in the 1984 slaying of Deborah Sykes, a newspaper copy editor in Winston-Salem. DNA evidence proved in 1994 that Hunt was not the man who had raped Sykes, but it was not enough to win Hunt a new trial on the murder charge.
He was released from prison only after DNA evidence led to a new suspect in December, a man who police and the State Bureau of Investigation say acted alone in killing Sykes. Hunt was exonerated in February and pardoned by Gov. Mike Easley in April.
Hunt said he wants the nonprofit group to work with the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence in Durham, which looks into potential cases of wrongful convictions. Because of the time involved in investigating cases, the center cannot accept cases in which the defendant has less than three years to serve in prison.
Hunt said he wants to hire private investigators to look at cases in Forsyth County to start, and eventually grow larger.
"What we envisioned is to take the cases that had three years or less remaining, and the bigger cases would be referred to the innocence project,'' he said. "We do have a number of cases that came in, and we're trying to decide what to do, with the limited resources we have at this moment.''
Since his release, Hunt has been inundated with calls and court documents from people who claim they are innocent, said Mark Rabil, an assistant capital defender who represented Hunt.
Rabil, a member of the board of directors for Hunt's foundation, said he is also in talks with the Wake Forest University School of Law to start an innocence project, something the state's four other law schools have.
Student volunteers under faculty supervision would investigate the innocence claims, Rabil said.