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The Trials of Darryl Hunt

Friday, October 28, 2011   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Jennifer Parrish Taylor
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"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.
Trials of Darryl Hunt

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 prison.

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 prison.

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.

For more information visit The Darryl Hunt Project.

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