The Trials of Darryl Hunt

[26 April 2007]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

A Bunch of Mess

In 1984, Darryl Hunt was arrested for the rape and murder of Deborah Sykes, in Winston-Salem NC. Just 19 years old at the time, Hunt insisted on his innocence. He spent nearly 20 years in prison before the “justice system” recognized that he was telling the truth.

The Trials of Darryl Hunt opens with images in a courtroom: Hunt’s eyes fill with tears, his face lifted, while the victim’s mother, Evelyn Jefferson, looks on, unbelieving. The circumstances are hard to read, though, as the images are accompanied by Jefferson’s testimony: “If there’s one thing that I have done involving my daughter’s death for a lot of years,” she says, her voice weary, “It’s pray for that, sir, just let me know if this is the right person, and give me a feeling of ease that this is the right person. And I believe I’ve been given that. We have indeed locked up people who are not guilty. Hunt’s not one of ‘em.” 

Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s extraordinary movie, which premieres on HBO tonight, traces the case that granted Jefferson such a “feeling of ease.” In doing so, it creates all manner of unease for viewers. The filmmakers came to the project in 1993, when Hunt was still in prison, serving a life sentence for the crime that horrified Winston-Salem nine years before. From the start, the movie emphasizes the multiple views of how the case went wrong: bloody crime scene photos are intercut with shots of Hunt’s early appearances in court and his mug shot, his youthful submission to the process nearly painful to see, knowing that his trust would be abused. While Jefferson’s agony is plain (“After the first stab wound,” she says in voiceover, “She would have probably been aware that she was going to die and that she was going to die alone”), Hunt’s saga is another sort of nightmare. Not at all “the right person,” he was instead the victim—of poor police work, a rush to resolution, and racism.

His first lawyer, Mark Rabil, appears at various stages over the 19-year struggle. Appointed to the case with no experience in murder cases, he remembers that he and his co-counsel knew immediately they were in trouble: “We knew that we represented a young black man charged with the rape and murder of a white woman,” he says. “It was the archetypal image of Southern injustice, it just evoked the image of a lynching.” Anticipating that Hunt would get the death penalty if convicted, Rabil recalls, “We were desperate.” The present-day Hunt remembers running into the same image when he was led to his cell. The guard tells him, “The last person we had down here, he was a nigger, and we come through here and he was hanging in the bars and then they walked back out. So now I’m really scared ‘cause I don’t know what is gonna happen.”

As the film shows in harrowing detail, the first trial featured an incredible array of errors (intentional or not) by the investigation and prosecution teams: there was no physical evidence, a photo lineup was bungled, timelines didn’t match, and witnesses were supremely unreliable. One supposed eyewitness as a proud Klan member, another was, in the words of a reporter at the time, “a 14-year-old self-described prostitute and cocaine addict” and “in-patient at a mental hospital [whose] psychiatrist testified that she had trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality.” Prosecutors put her on the stand even though she recanted her statement—that Hunt had confessed to her—line by line. This so the jury (comprised of 11 whites and one black) would hear the original story.

The case appeared preposterous on its face. But community members saw its direction early. Imam Khalid Griggs recalls, “Subconsciously, every African American male in this community started to feel this way and every African American female with a son started to feel that this could be her son.” Larry Little, Winston-Salem City Alderman, puts it bluntly: “This case is a bunch of mess.” And so he and other community members began to raise money for a Hunt Defense Fund. Following the first conviction, the group hired more lawyers, including James Ferguson, to appeal. Rabil stayed on the case, determined to make the broken system work. A second trial in 1989 resulted in the same verdict. In 1994, DNA evidence (semen taken from Sykes’ body) proved Hunt did not rape her. But the court ruled this was inconclusive, that he may have raped her without ejaculating, or murdered her without raping her.

Again and again, such decisions seem unbelievable. Trials observes each step briefly, building a broader, disturbing context. Little notes the participation of the “white mainstream press,” eager to follow a sensational case and prone to trust the official story, even as it flew in the face of reason. Mary Anne Sheboy—the first television reporter on the scene when Sykes’ body was discovered in 1984—appears in TV footage, tracking a witness’ movements (even dialing 9-1-1 in close-up), describing courtroom testimony. Sheboy also speaks to the filmmakers, defending the reports that now look so wrong. “Sure,” she says, “After the fact, so-and-so wasn’t wearing his glasses or so-and-so was a Klansman… You can tear apart anybody’s character, anybody’s history, but they came across to me at the time, as believable.”

Sheboy does provide a useful example of how “emotions” moved one trial, as she responds to DA Dean Bowman’s spectacular closing in 1990’s trial. As much as admitting the prosecution has no evidence, he imagines the victim’s ordeal: “He crawled down inside her and ravaged her and deposited some thick yellow sickening fluid in her body. Did she feel the blood trickling down her back and her neck?” The description is stunning. And it achieves its desired end: Hunt is again convicted. 

After a series of appeals defeats, the defense team itself turned to the press. Little says, in footage from 1994, “We have to nationally expose this thing. The whole world needs to know about this case.” At last, in November 2003, the Winston-Salem Journal‘s Phoebe Zerwick published an eight-part series titled “Race, Murder, Justice,” taking apart the case year by year. Interviewing Sylvia Oberle, the Journal‘s editor from 1980 to 1992, Zerwick wrote,

The newspaper assigned labels to Hunt’s supporters, often calling them “black activists,” she said. And rather than helping people understand the weaknesses in the state’s case, the newspaper left readers with the impression that the problems were a matter of opinion held only by a vocal few, she said.

“In the process some really important issues of justice were lost and we became a really divided community,” she said.

The State had increasing difficulties explaining its refusal to consider DNA and other exculpatory evidence. When another man’s DNA is found to match that in the Sykes case, the Hunt lawyers are hopeful, as they had been so many times before. Even better, Willard Brown confesses. Their anticipation is framed in composed office interviews, as they wait one more time for the State to do the right thing. Still, the happy ending is hard-won, even excruciating. As it considers the injustices that shaped Darryl Hunt’s many trials, the documentary includes slow motion imagery, infinitely sad music, and all manner of evidence condemning the system. Though it was released following Hunt’s exoneration (in 2005), the film makes a case for artists and journalists’ participation in that system, the necessity for scrutinizing and monitoring what goes on daily, at all levels of jurisdiction and representation.

The Journal series, the film submits, helped to bring wider attention to the case, and the “divided community” evolved over time, able to recognize the racist frame for all those convictions and denials. That’s not to say the justice system is now free of racism, subtle and overt. Darryl Hunt now heads the Darryl Hunt Project, a foundation to help others who have been wrongfully convicted.

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