"It Doesn’t Matter If A Person Has Three Years Or Three Days To Serve, If They Are Innocent, They Should Be Exonerated” ---Darryl Hunt
Nearly a month after the execution of Troy Davis, the Black Law
Students Association presented the film: "The Trials of Darryl Hunt” as
part of their community service week. The film documents the brutal rape
and stabbing murder of Deborah Sykes, a young white reporter with the
North Carolina Winston-Salem Journal, and the wrongful imprisonment of
Darryl Hunt, a nineteen year old black male, for twenty years. The film
chronicles this case from 1984 through 2004.
In 1984, Darryl Hunt was picked up by local police who were tipped off
by a 911 phone call made by a man named Johnny Gray. At the time, Johnny
Gray said that his name was Sammy Mitchell, a man well known by police
and prosecutors. Don Tisdale, the District Attorney, had prosecuted
Sammy Mitchell on numerous occasions and considered Mr. Hunt to be "[Mr.
Mitchell’s] young protégé.” Once picked up, Mr. Hunt cooperated with
the police investigation and maintained his innocence. He argued that he
was only guilty of being an acquaintance of a known criminal. Later,
Mr. Hunt said that Mr. Tisdale offered him $12,000 and promised to have
the murder charges dropped if he would only name Sammy Mitchell as the
killer of Mrs. Sykes. If not, Mr. Tisdale would seek the death penalty
in Mr. Hunt’s case. Mr. Hunt refused. Even though there was no physical
evidence of Darryl Hunt at the scene of the murder, he was subsequently
charged with the rape and murder of Deborah Sykes based solely on the ID
made by a former Klan member, Thomas Murphy, and the 911 phone call.
At this time, Alderman Larry Little began independently investigating
Darryl Hunt’s case. He had, on numerous occasions, spent time with Mr.
Hunt and felt that it was not in his character to commit such a heinous
crime. Alderman Little’s concern grew when he heard that Johnny Gray,
who was known in the neighborhood as a "shady” and unreliable
individual, was the prosecution’s main witness. Alderman Little brought
his concerns to Mr. Hunt’s defensive attorneys, Mark Rabil and Larry
Gordon, both of whom had never before tried a capital case. It did not
help. After both sides had argued their case, Mr. Hunt was convicted of
rape and murder by an all-white jury and was sentenced to life in
Six years later, in 1990, the court ordered a new trial due to new
evidence. Mr. Hunt was released on $50,000 bond and was represented by
James Ferguson, his new defense attorney. Mr. Hunt was offered a plea
bargain of second degree murder with time served by newly appointed
prosecutors, Dean Bowman and Jimmy Yates. Still maintaining his
innocence, Mr. Hunt refused. In front of yet another all-white jury, Mr.
Hunt was convicted again of rape and murder and sentenced to life in
With the courts ordering the release of the State Bureau of
Investigation report and with the additional work of a private
investigator, Richard McGough, hired by the defense, it became clear
that witnesses had been intimidated, evidence was withheld, numerous violations of federal constitutional law had been committed and
the key piece of DNA evidence which the prosecution had argued was too
degraded to test, was indeed intact.
Although the state argued that DNA testing was speculative, Judge Morgan
ordered that a comparison be done. On October 22, 1993, the results of
the DNA comparison excluded Darryl Hunt. Now, the state argued that the
evidence was contaminated. Although Judge Morgan ruled that the DNA
comparison was not contaminated, he did find that the results did not
preclude the Mr. Hunt from being at the crime scene and he denied the
motion for a new trial.
On December 20, 1994, the North Carolina State Supreme Court, in a four
to three split decision, denied a new trial for Darryl Hunt. In the
film, Mr. Hunt talks about how he had grown "immune to being discarded”
and how having been marked as a man who not only killed but raped a
white woman, he was taunted and harassed by other inmates and by the
guards who were supposed to be protecting him. On October 16, 2000, Mr.
Hunt’s appeal for a new trial was denied by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Three years later, Phoebe Zerwick, a reporter with the Winston-Salem
Journal, began investigating the Hunt case as part of an eight-part
editorial series. Through her research, she came across a case that was
eerily similar to that of Deborah Sykes’, but the female victim was able
to fend off her attacker. The suspect in that case was Willard Brown, a
career criminal. Over two months after the Supreme Court denied Darryl
Hunts’ appeal, a DNA match was made for the unidentified sample in the
Sykes’ case – it was Willard Brown. Mr. Brown then confessed to the
murder of Ms. Sykes. When questions were raised as to why Mr. Brown was
not questioned during the initial investigation, the victim and her
family revealed that they had been intimidated into keeping silent about
the attack. In addition, defense counsel learned that evidence of the
attack had been destroyed by the police after Darryl Hunt’s second
appeal. After almost twenty years in prison, on Christmas Day, Darryl
Hunt was released. On February 6, 2004, Superior Court Judge Anderson Cromer vacated Mr. Hunt's murder conviction and dismissed the case
against him with prejudice. On February 19, 2007, the city of
Winston-Salem settled the lawsuit with Mr. Hunt and provided him an
apology and a settlement of $1,650,000.