A conversation with Phoebe Zerwick about reporting, narrative, racism, privacy, truth and her book, ‘Beyond Innocence’

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

Phoebe Zerwick
Phoebe Zerwick | Photo by Christine Rucker

Phoebe Zerwick is a longtime investigative journalist who is now director of the journalism program and professor of the practice at Wake Forest University. Her book, “Beyond Innocence: The Life Sentence of Darryl Hunt,” is the story of the remarkable life of a Black man and his wrongful conviction of a 1984 rape and murder in Winston-Salem, his exoneration after nearly two brutal decades in prison, and the consequences that followed, both heroic and tragic.

I had the privilege of speaking with Zerwick recently about the book and the case, and about the roles, approaches and limitations of local journalists in reporting on the criminal justice system and the people who find themselves in it. Here is our conversation, edited for length and clarity:

EF: You wrote about the Darryl Hunt case for the Winston-Salem Journal in 2003. Talk about what you found then that surprised you, what the media may have missed.

PZ: I was assigned to take a deep, fresh look at Darryl Hunt’s case in 2003, right after he filed a motion for a new round of DNA testing so that the DNA profile could be run against what was then a new thing — databases of DNA of convicted offenders. And it was a case that, of course, had been covered by my newspaper regularly for 19 years. So I and all of our readers knew many of the facts of the case, including the fact that he claimed he was railroaded, that he claimed he was innocent, and that there were many holes in the case against him. That’s important because a lot of these cases have been neglected, going on without public scrutiny, and that was not the situation here. 

Going into it, I felt, first of all, that it was my job to really understand the case. I didn’t want to go into it thinking that I was Darryl Hunt’s champion, because that would have been my natural inclination, and I wanted to be guided by what I learned. And I spent many months at it, reading case files, looking at police reports, interviewing people involved, you know, all the basic stuff that journalists do. I think the most revealing reporting thing that we did was, I worked really closely with my editor on this, Les Gura, and we built a timeline, which I think is a pretty standard journalistic thing to do. But it helped me piece together what had happened in the early days of the investigation, and it suddenly made it really clear how quickly police had zeroed in on Darryl Hunt, and how… they looked at evidence basically that confirmed those suspicions and disregarded other evidence. 

And then there were some other things that really surprised me. We were looking at not just the investigation, but the way the whole legal case unfolded, and he had gone through all these rounds of appeals, mostly postconviction appeals, in which judges are really trying to make a tough determination. What they’re trying to decide is whether new evidence that defense attorneys present is strong enough that it would make a difference to a jury if there was another trial — which is kind of an odd question. That was one thing I learned, in a way: That is a high bar to cross. And then the other thing that I learned was, in Darryl Hunt’s case, by 1994, there was DNA evidence that excluded him as the rapist. And every judge or panel of judges all the way to the Federal Court of Appeals said, “Oh, the DNA evidence wouldn’t matter to a jury,” which seemed like a pretty astonishing decision. 

And a great thing that journalists can do is, we can call up jurors, right? So I think one of the biggest revelations for me was talking to the jury foremen at both of Darryl Hunt’s trials who, you know, pretty much just moved on with their lives, and they didn’t know that in ‘94, there was DNA evidence that excluded him as the rapist. And both of them said, “Oh, my gosh, if I had known that.” I don’t think either of them said, “Oh, we would have ruled him not guilty.” But they both were astonished, and they thought that it was critical for a new jury to hear that evidence. The first jury foreman sort of gasped, and he said, “Oh my God, thank God we didn’t sentence him to death. Maybe he didn’t do it.” So that shed so much light on what the very complicated postconviction rulings are all about. I tested it against two jurors who’d heard all the evidence against Hunt, and they basically thought the judges were just dead wrong. 

But the other thing that I think is really instructive about the work I did in 2003 is that it didn’t really come up with anything brand new. Nobody recanted to me, or there was no piece of evidence that hadn’t really been looked at before. But what I did come up with was a different way of telling the story … and we chose to write it as an eight-part narrative. That’s not so unusual now, but in 2003 it was, and that really changed the way readers saw a story that they already knew. 

But the other absolutely critical thing that happened, and I think this speaks to the power of local journalism in these kinds of stories, and I don’t know that it would have happened if I had not been writing for a local newspaper … The day the first part was published, which was on a Sunday, a woman called and left me a voicemail, which I heard when I got to work that Monday morning, and she said — I’ll never forget the tone of her voice; it was sort of this raspy, heavy smoker’s voice — and she said, “You have to call me. I know he’s innocent. My daughter-in-law was raped six months after Deborah Sykes (the woman Hunt had been convicted of killing) was raped … and I always thought there was a connection between the two cases. I’m sure the same man committed the two crimes.” But the police — basically what she told me was they silenced her daughter-in-law.

And I didn’t, at that point, really have time to look into this other case, because the reporting was done. The whole series was laid out. But I wrote about it in the final installment as kind of an unexplored lead. But … that mother-in-law was right. It turned out that it was the same man. And the fact that I had all that information, it meant that a month after my series ran, when they started doing the DNA testing and came up with a partial match, which is meaningless, but the partial match was with the brother of this suspect — I think because the local newspaper knew that, knew his name, they couldn’t sweep that under the rug. 

The other thing that happened because we were a local newspaper is that the judge read the series that I wrote, the district attorney read it. It changed their minds. And so when the state crime lab was sitting on the judge’s order, he threatened to hold them in contempt of court. So that pushed the testing to be done. When they got the match, you know, the DA actually relied on my work as he reviewed what this meant. And again, I don’t know that that would have happened if it had been, you know, a national magazine writing about this and then leaving town.

EF: So the local reporting is crucial. Talk, though, about the limits of how local journalists cover criminal justice.

PZ: Well, there are two limits. And by now it’s changed. Local journalists are way more skeptical of the police than they used to be, and more likely to see things from the defense point of view — but more hamstrung. I mean, local newspapers are not freeing up a reporter for six months anymore to do anything.

But … you need your sources. You need to get to know police officers to cover crime, right? Otherwise, you won’t get any information. You need to know the DA. It’s the problem with any beat reporter. You’ve got to get to know people. And then it’s harder to keep your distance. And at least, you know, until the 2000s … there’s this tension between striving for balance and striving for the truth. And so we report criminal justice matters as the prosecutor says this, defense attorneys say something else, and sometimes the story should not be so balanced because then you lose the truth. Sometimes the defense is telling the truth and the prosecution is telling a false narrative, right? And it’s just such a fine line to walk.

EF: So you still have the issues of balance and familiarity. Fewer resources, maybe more skepticism. So all in all, are we any better at it now than we were in 2003?

PZ: I don’t know that I’ve studied it enough to really answer that question. I think that in some ways, we all have a better understanding of the limits of the justice system than we did in 2003. But the limits on resources, I think, mean that we are not covering crime as well as we did 20 years ago. There just aren’t enough people doing it. 

EF: So obviously, we can’t snap our fingers and have more resources. But given what we have, how can we cover criminal justice better?

PZ: I’m trying to think of a local newspaper I read every day religiously, the Winston-Salem Journal, my old newspaper, and I think, given the resources, they’re doing a good job. I mean, they’re still filing Freedom of Information requests. They’re covering you know, the big stories. We had a big innocence hearing going on in Winston-Salem, and they did a terrific job covering that. We’ve had some deaths in the county jail, and they’ve filed the Freedom of Information Act requests, and they’ve done the investigative reporting that needed to be done there. I think what they’re not (able to do) are the big trends, and the deep investigations, but as far as the day-to-day coverage, I think they’re doing a good job with the one or two people they have.

EF: To frame it a little bit differently: If I were a reporter, and I wanted to help people understand the local criminal justice system better, what would I do? What should I focus on?

PZ: I think I would focus on the discretion in the prosecutor’s office, and how prosecutors are using the power they have. You know, big felony cases always get attention, so I would look at what’s happening with misdemeanor cases. I would look at the churn through the courthouse … I would pick one systemic issue and look at that, and the first thing that comes to mind is the power of the prosecutor’s office and how local prosecutors are using that power.

EF: There’s a subtext of racism and gender in everything about life in America. What do we need to do better to take that into account in our reporting, to help people understand it better?

PZ: First, the question of racism — which is so misunderstood, right? And it’s so polarizing. But I think local journalists have to find a way to really explain what this idea of systemic or institutional racism means. And this has been an idea that’s been misunderstood ever since I’ve been a journalist. You know, activists would talk about systemic racism, and readers would say, “You’re accusing me of being racist. I have black friends.” There’s this big gap. And now, critical race theory, which is a theory for understanding legal structures, and is being understood as an accusation of an individual being racist. 

So, I think (we need) pieces that can really explain what it means to say that our trials are racist. The facts are that prosecutors strike potential Black jurors from juries. That’s what systemic racism means. And readers need to understand. Segregated housing patterns persist, and that has to do with zoning laws and the history of redlining and all kinds of other systemic issues. It might mean that individual people in a particular neighborhood are racist, but what it really means is that the racism is built into our zoning laws, our banking guidelines, the way Realtors operate, the way our school systems are designed. And so I think more explanatory pieces could be very, very useful.

EF: Where did we fail Darryl Hunt after he was exonerated?

Beyond Innocence book cover
Phoebe Zerwick’s book, “Beyond Innocence: The Life Sentence of Darryl Hunt,” is about the remarkable life of a Black man and his wrongful conviction of a 1984 rape and murder in Winston-Salem, his exoneration and the consequences that followed.

PZ: I think we failed him in so many ways, but one way is simply not understanding the deep trauma — and that word trauma is so overused now, but in this case, it is the correct word — the deep trauma that he endured, first by being wrongly accused, and then wrongly convicted. That just is a world-shattering experience, to know that you didn’t do something and have much of the world think that you did. Then he spent nearly 20 years in some of the worst prisons in the state. In that time he spent four years — not consecutive, but months at a time — in solitary confinement, which has now been proven to cause long-term psychological problems. Then, he was in these prisons as a Black man convicted of raping a white woman … So he faced death threats from guards and other people in prison with him. 

All of these experiences were deeply traumatizing. And I think people in the innocence movement are beginning to see that now. But not in 2004, when he got out … He became an advocate, and I think he wanted to do that, but I think he also felt pressure because of the way he conducted himself — he was so gracious and so stoic and so calm, and then people wanted him to continue that … I think that created an enormous amount of pressure for him to live up to expectations that he had for himself, and that everybody around him, especially in his hometown, had for him. 

And that’s a problem partly of local journalism, but it’s really a problem of narrative and storytelling — it’s an easier storyline to tell, right? So, almost all of these exoneration stories are written as stories of triumph, and they are, but then, you know, what next? And the what next is a much more complicated story that was not really told much. There were stories about some of his struggles afterward, but I don’t think they really got at the depths of what he was experiencing.

EF: I was going to ask you what the media can do to help society restore at least part of the lives of the wrongly convicted, but I think you just answered a lot of that.

PZ: I think it’s important to tell stories, not just of the wrongly convicted but of all of us, recognizing that people in all situations are fully human and complex figures. And we’re always looking — not just in local journalism — for the poster child, for the anecdotal lead that sums it all up. You know, you write about immigration. Well, you look for the perfect immigrant, right?

And I think that does often strip people of their full humanity and puts people in situations that they can’t really live up to. The other thing that happened to Darryl Hunt — and I don’t know that there was any way around it — but … he was treated as a public figure. So when he was given compensation by the city, settling his wrongful arrest lawsuit, the amount of money he received was reported — and it had to be reported because we report on local government — and the city paid him $1.6 million. But then, everybody knew he had money, and he felt a lot of betrayal just from people he knew from his neighborhood, people who wanted money from him all the time. When there was trouble in his marriage, and he and his wife had an argument and she filed papers asking for a restraining order, he was treated as a public figure. And so suddenly his name is all over the Winston-Salem Journal again, and then every other paper in the state picked this up … So that was absolutely devastating for him. And I don’t have a simple answer to what the local paper should have done about that.

EF: How does your experience with Darryl Hunt inform your work as a journalism educator?

PZ: That’s a great question … I think it’s changed the way I teach — and this is true of a lot of journalism professors — but it certainly changed the way I teach about what we’re striving for. You know, when I was in school, when I became a journalist, we were striving for this thing we called objectivity. What I teach is to be aware of your biases, and then to strive for an objective method that involves verifying facts. I think I’m more interested in transparency than I would have been 20 years ago. So how did you report this story? And does your reader need to know what went into the reporting, and is that going to be relevant to understanding the story? 

And you know, I did things in researching and reporting the book that I never would have done as a newspaper reporter. And I don’t even know if we would do them as a newspaper reporter. But because I was writing about things that were so personal for people, I allowed people to read those sections before I submitted them. I didn’t want anything to come as a surprise. I teach my journalism students the opposite — you don’t let anybody read it first. But if I were back in a newsroom, and depending on the depth of the story, I think I would probably do that now, because I’m much more conscious of the impact of a story on a person when it’s something personal. 

This generation of students is very conscious of privacy, of their biases. My students at Wake Forest are very conscious of their privilege. They’re very conscious of what it means to be a white person, writing about something having to do with Black experience or Latino experience and whether they have the right to tell those stories. So I’m really pushing them to overcome those fears and have awareness to push beyond that.

And I think I’ve learned that from Darryl Hunt’s story and writing this book — that there’s a tremendous tension there. These stories need to be told, but they do involve a lot of going into unknown places and invading people’s privacy. I think what Darryl Hunt’s story teaches me about journalism is how very damaging a story that’s not true can be for people.

EF: I’m really intrigued by what you said about prepublication review in limited circumstances. 

PZ: Mm-hmm. That’s a very controversial statement to make in journalism.

EF: So what guardrails would you put on that?

PZ: I would never give anybody consent over something that I publish … the power to quash something. I made it really clear that I wanted (my sources) to be comfortable with what I was writing, but that they weren’t going to get a chance to add to the final manuscript and that I couldn’t make any promises because I had no idea how many rounds of edits these things were going to go through.

But I also regarded it as partly a process of verification, because I was writing about people’s personal experiences and their thoughts and their emotions. You know, it wasn’t like I was prechecking quotes with an elected official. So I felt that if they weren’t comfortable with the way I portrayed something about the way they felt or the way they thought, then  maybe I had gotten it wrong, misinterpreted or maybe I chose the wrong words. So it seemed important, telling something that was truthful. 

And I think I decided to do this because I’d interviewed the woman who was raped by the same man who was identified in the case Hunt was convicted of. And I was influenced, I suppose, by the Me Too movement in describing this horrific, very private experience she’d endured. And she was going to let me use her name … It was really important to me that it felt true to her. And if I remember correctly, I think the only thing she wanted me to change was — she was a very devout person, and a lot of the way she got through this whole experience was through her faith. And she wanted me to change the order in which I’d written two or three words — that God was first in the sentence and her family second — and I thought, Wow, I was going through the rhythm of the sentence, and God seemed like a good thing to end with. But that just seemed really important. And I added another sentence about her faith because it was so important to her. And it was important to me that what I wrote was a true representation of who she was.

EF: Thanks for your candor about that. Anything else you’d like to say?

PZ: Well we haven’t actually talked that much about the book itself, and I suppose what the book tells is mostly a story of Darryl Hunt and his legacy. So I don’t see it as this book about journalism. But that’s certainly one of the themes that runs through the book. And it does celebrate the importance of local journalism. Even the way I came to write the book was from the experience of being a local journalist. I started looking into what happened to him pretty much from the day he died, and it wasn’t because I set out to write a book. It was because I was still, in my heart, a local journalist, and I wanted to know what had happened to a man in my community. 

NC Local News Workshop