As the Trump administration cranks up the wretched machinery of capital punishment — either for real or as a campaign ploy, or both — two names of Triad men come to mind: Darryl Hunt and Keith Harward.
Hunt was a 19-year-old Winston-Salem man who was wrongly convicted of rape and murder in 1985.
Deborah Sykes, 26, a copy editor for The (Winston-Salem) Sentinel, had been raped, sodomized and stabbed 19 times in the chest on Aug. 10, 1984.
Harward is a Guilford County native who was convicted in 1982 of beating to death a man with a crowbar while his wife watched — and then raping the wife before the man’s eyes as he lay dying.
Hunt spent 19 years in prison, Harward, 33, before both were exonerated by DNA evidence, and in Hunt’s case, the confession of the actual murderer. Neither received a death sentence, but each could have.
I have been fortunate enough to know both men, and I was stunned by their utter lack of bitterness. It has to be the worst feeling imaginable to know you’re innocent and still facing a life behind bars. Who wouldn’t be angry beyond words? Who wouldn’t be driven mad by the hopelessness?
But for the grace of God, Harward and Hunt may well have been dead by the time the truth emerged, suffocated by poisonous gas or injected with lethal chemicals.
The five federal prisoners who will be put to death by December, if the Trump administration has its way, were convicted and sentenced for especially horrific crimes. But the problem with the justice system is that it is fundamentally imperfect. It makes mistakes. Lots of them.
Since 1973, 166 people on death rows in the U.S. have been exonerated.
But a mistake that culminates in a wrongful execution cannot be undone. And when that happens nobody wins. Not the victim’s family. Not the state. Not the public, which still may in danger from the person who actually committed the crime. And certainly not the poor soul who lost his life for no good reason.
Too often the U.S. justice system is anything but just. And it disproportionately penalizes people of color and the impoverished. (Harward is white; Hunt was black).
Donald Trump, of all people, show know that. In 1989, he famously paid $85,000 for full-page ads in four newspapers calling for the execution of the Central Park Five — five youth of color who had been coerced into confessing that they had beaten and raped a 28-year-old white jogger.
“BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE,” the ads declared in blaring type.
In the end, the actual rapist admitted to the crime. But Trump has not apologized. He never does.
Nor, apparently, did he learn from the tragic mistakes — and outright corruption — that changed those young men’s lives. But at least they lived. More than a few people haven’t been so fortunate.
Consider Jesse Tafero, who was convicted and executed for murdering two Florida Highway Patrol officers in 1990. A jury had recommended a life sentence but a judge imposed that death penalty.
Tafero was put to death in an electric chair that malfunctioned not once, not twice, but three times, taking a torturous seven minutes to wrest his life away. Tafero’s skin fried and his head was set afire before he died.
Two years later, another man confessed to the murders.
As for Darryl Hunt and Keith Harward, both displayed amazing grace after being freed that I will never understand.
Sadly, Hunt died in 2016 — the year Harward was freed — from self-inflicted gunshot wounds. He was estranged from his wife at the time and battling depression. (Even someone with such a gentle and peaceful spirit, it turns out, still had his demons.) Meanwhile, Harward was still counting his blessings when we spoke in 2017.
He could be bitter, he told me. “But for me to be bitter is for me to allow them to control me some more. That’s time wasted. I don’t have time to waste.”
There was too much of his life still left to live. He planned to savor every second. He had spent more than half his life behind bars. And he’s one of the lucky ones.
Still, some of you may these miscarriages of law and order as acceptable losses — the price of wreaking righteous revenge on bad people. Until the person who is wrongly convicted is your loved one.
Or until that person is you.
This column is updated to correct a reference to Darryl Hunt's health at the time of his death. Although Hunt had said he had stomach and prostate cancer, an autopsy revealed no signs of the disease.