Tuesday, November 22, 2022

The Trials of Darryl Hunt

Directors Ricki Stern (left) and Anne Sundberg

Journalist Phoebe Zerwick

Zerwick today






















THE TRIALS OF DARRYL HUNT             B+                                                                               USA  (113 mi)  2006  d: Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg

Racism is more powerful than facts because racism is illogical and it is emotional and therefore, facts don't matter.        —Larry Little, founder of Hunt Defense Fund

Originally premiering on HBO cable television in 2007 after it won the Documentary Audience Award at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, this is a ghastly story, one of the best documentaries on the seemingly hopeless, coldhearted nature of racial injustice, particularly when multiplied by the hundreds and even thousands who may have undergone similar fates, made all the more compelling in this film by the intimate closeness the filmmakers get with the people involved in the case, from the lawyers to the activists, the prosecuting attorneys, the newspaper writers, the mother of a young white woman in Winston-Salem, North Carolina who was brutally raped and murdered, and the man who was convicted of the crime, Darryl Hunt.  A young teenager at the time who always proclaimed his innocence, he spent 19 ½ years in prison for a crime he never committed, the last ten years even after DNA evidence exonerated him, as the police had no other suspects for the crime, so could not conceivably believe the crime was committed by anyone else.  The filmmakers followed this story only in the last 10 years of incarceration, using badly aged archival footage for the earlier years mixed with present day testimony from those actively involved in the case.  What intrigued the filmmakers were the diametrically opposed racial views on this case in the Winston-Salem community, as Mark Rabil, Hunt’s defense attorney from the beginning, knew what he was up against as the rape and murder of a white woman by a black man fit the Southern racial stereotype that “evoked the image of a lynching.” 

And sure enough, that same pattern unravels, as District Attorney Don Tisdale takes over the case from the local police.  In 1984, Deborah Sykes, a young white newspaper copy editor for The Winston-Salem Journal was sexually assaulted, raped, sodomized and stabbed to death in a nearby park just blocks from where she worked.  Although no physical evidence linked him to the crime, Darryl Hunt, a 19-year-old black man, was charged with the heinous crime based in large part by an eyewitness identification made by a former Ku Klux Klan member.  In an atmosphere of racial division, Hunt was convicted by a jury of 11 whites and one black, and sentenced to life imprisonment.  The indicators that mattered most were using that same Ku Klux Klan eye witness who was nowhere near the scene of the crime, an emotionally distraught, mentally unstable junkie prostitute who was browbeaten into saying whatever the prosecutors wanted her to say, a nearly all white jury, and the sympathies and emotions that are played upon by the prosecutors, who are more interested in getting a conviction than revealing the facts in the matter.  Evidence and facts are overlooked, in some cases criminally suppressed and covered up so that the overall big picture could be served, and in the language of the police as they allegedly intimidated Hunt’s own witnesses, many of whom simply disappeared, ”Y’all know that nigger is guilty.”  Time and again when evidence or suppression of evidence is called into question on appeals, it’s simply set aside under rulings that this would not have changed the outcome of the case. 

Told from the point-of-view of three principal subjects, an enterprising investigative journalist, an unyielding defense attorney, and a wrongfully convicted man, this exposé offers an eye-opening examination of a community and a criminal justice system both tainted by racial bias and fear.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, no members from law enforcement were willing to speak to the filmmakers, instead the film does a good job painting a portrait of Hunt as a young man from those who knew him, as they stand up for him when he proclaims his innocence throughout the long and terrible ordeal.  As Hunt reveals, “All I needed was for someone to listen.”  His gentle nature defies the trial’s image of a violent criminal.  Despite having no record, he is described as a young apprentice of known criminals because his best friend has a long rap sheet.  Initially the District Attorney offers Hunt $12,000 to testify against his friend, and when he refuses, he is charged with the crime, which carries the possible penalty of death.  Hunt describes his first night in prison when he was placed in “the hole,” a place down at the end of the cell block separated from the rest of the prisoners where there was no ventilation and it was over 100 degrees, as the guard told him the last person he placed in there hung himself.  Welcome to the next 19 years of your life.  There are a series of appeals, even a new trial, but the testimony of the Klansman and the emotional climate in the courtroom all but seals the deal.  One of the newspaper reporters recalled being in court, claiming no one knew about any suppression of evidence or tampering with witnesses or that it was a Klansman lying on the witness stand, but she described how emotions prevailed, how it would have been impossible for anyone in the courtroom to believe Hunt was not guilty of the crime. 

The film exposes a legacy of racism in the criminal justice system and the human toll it produces, drawing upon excerpts from Hunt’s letters and diaries, while profiling activists, clergymen, and lawyers who advocated for his release.  Hunt’s mother was murdered when he was a boy, raised by his grandfather, a 9th grade dropout, with nothing in his life pointing to violence, steadfastly claiming from the beginning that he had no contact whatsoever with Deborah Sykes.  Ten years later in 1994, the DNA evidence proves Hunt could not have raped the woman, yet the government still sticks to their story, no matter the price, as the District Attorney and the appeals courts stupifyingly retain their belief that this should not affect the outcome, even after the DNA excludes Hunt’s friend as well, the one who was alleged by police to be the real perpetrator.  What’s perhaps most distressing is how science, like evolution, is viewed so suspiciously in the South.  Eventually, the flimsy evidence as well as the judicial incompetence comes to light.  Hunt is offered a plea agreement pleading guilty to second degree manslaughter, allowed to go free based on time served, an offer his lawyer and friends urge him to accept, as based on the racial climate surrounding the case it is unlikely he would ever receive a fair trial, but he rejects this offer knowing he never committed the crime.  Probably the most compelling moment in the film is the hope that the State’s Supreme Court will overturn his conviction and perhaps even set him free.  Everything points to that possibility.  As his lawyers gather around their office to call him in prison with the news over a speaker phone, we hear them relay the news that the appeal was denied by a vote of 4-3.  The hush in the room is indescribable, as is the silence on the other end of the line.  Hope simply vanishes into thin air. 

Despite the setbacks, Hunt’s calm and peaceful demeanor attracts the attention of April Griggs the moment she lays eyes on him, a young Muslim girl, the stepdaughter of Iman Khalid Griggs, one of Hunt’s most ardent supporters.  Their relationship of trust in God and in one another is one of the most affirmative aspects of the film, as there isn’t an ounce of pretense in their feelings for one another.  They actually get married in prison, which he calls the “happiest day in his life.”  Her unshakable belief in this man is overwhelming.  Some 18 years after the murder, with racial animosity in the community still divided along color lines, the local newspaper that the victim worked for before she was murdered assigned a reporter to conduct their own investigation, Phoebe Zerwick, spending some 6 months or more pouring over the evidence before releasing a massive 8-part series in November 2003 which found that the police used questionable tactics and unreliable witnesses to convict Hunt, explaining the facts and inconsistencies of the case, which had a profound effect of uniting the races, as white religious leaders joined blacks to demand more public scrutiny in the case, which included demanding to know whose DNA was at the scene of the crime.  When the District Attorney budges, claiming the outcome has already been legally decided, a court orders a lab to release the results, which leads to Willard E. Brown, a man already convicted of raping another woman prior to Hunt’s incident, a man the police initially reported was innocent of the murder as he was incarcerated during the time, but they were mistaken, as Brown was released early and his DNA was present at the crime scene.  Still the District Attorney refuses to release Hunt, finding the results unfathomable, so Hunt remains in prison subject to further review.  His ultimate day in court is electrifying, as the victim’s mother, Evelyn Jefferson, takes the stand and makes her feelings known that she still believes Hunt raped and murdered her daughter, while Hunt in turn faces directly towards the mother and after breaking down in tears claims after all these years he can’t explain it either, that he never touched her daughter, but she would always remain in his prayers.  It’s an astonishing scene of stark realism that will remain embedded in the minds of viewers for quite some time, long after we learn of Hunt’s freedom and eventual exoneration, yet we also learn that the prosecutor in the case gets promoted to a special position in the Bush administration.    


Hunt was released from prison on Christmas Eve, 2003.  On February 6, 2004, Superior Court Judge Anderson Cromer vacated Hunt’s murder conviction, dismissing the case, receiving a pardon by the Governor on April 15, 2004, while on February 19, 2007, the city of  Winston-Salem settled with Hunt in his lawsuit against the city where Hunt was awarded a settlement of $1,650,000, which he used to found The Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice and The Darryl Hunt Freedom Fighters, becoming a national advocate for social justice.  He is also an award winning speaker, mentor, community activist and author, speaking to hundreds of conferences, schools, film festivals, and religious groups.  He has played a pivotal role in North Carolina’s state-wide effort to pass a Death Penalty Moratorium Bill and has appeared before a U.S. Judiciary Committee hearing on the death penalty appeals process.  Some years later, however, Hunt’s life went into a downward spiral, living in a transient hotel, estranged from his family, using drugs and lying to his friends, conditions exacerbated by continuing mental health struggles that are commonplace to released prisoners suffering lingering postprison trauma, committing suicide from a self-inflicted gunshot in 2016 at the age of 51.  Hunt spent most of his years in prison in solitary confinement, and it should be pointed out that just recently an estimated 300,000 prisoners were held in solitary confinement in U.S. jails and prisons at the height of the COVID pandemic, according to estimates from the Solitary Watch and The Marshall Project, while a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Study Links Solitary Confinement to Increased Risk of Death ...) indicates prisoners who spend the most time in solitary confinement are more likely to die after release from suicide, homicide, or overdose, all of it linked to severe PTSD from our prison system.  Phoebe Zerwick is now the director of the journalism program at Wake Forest University and earlier this year published the definitive book on this tragic ordeal, Beyond Innocence: The Life Sentence of Darryl Hunt. 

Room for Doubt - Winston-Salem Journal  Part 1 of 8-part series from Murder, Race, Justice: The State vs. Darryl Hunt, by Phoebe Zerwick from The Winston-Salem Journal, November 2003

JournalNow Special Report | Murder, Race, Justice: The State vs ...  The Search Begins, Who Saw What, Part 2 from Murder, Race, Justice: The State vs. Darryl Hunt, by Phoebe Zerwick from The Winston-Salem Journal, November 2003

JournalNow Special Report - Winston-Salem Journal  Arrest and Protest, Part 3 from Murder, Race, Justice: The State vs. Darryl Hunt, by Phoebe Zerwick from The Winston-Salem Journal, November 2003

Split jury struggles to a guilty verdict but has enough doubt to ...  Uneasy DA Wins a Conviction, Part 4 from Murder, Race, Justice: The State vs. Darryl Hunt, by Phoebe Zerwick from The Winston-Salem Journal, November 2003

Investigators bring back old witnesses, gain some new ones  Part 5 from Murder, Race, Justice: The State vs. Darryl Hunt, by Phoebe Zerwick from The Winston-Salem Journal, November 2003

All-white jury in Catawba County doesn't buy defense ...  ‘Guilty’ Again, Part 6 from Murder, Race, Justice: The State vs. Darryl Hunt, by Phoebe Zerwick from The Winston-Salem Journal, November 2003

State: DNA Results Irrelevant - Winston-Salem Journal  Part 7 from Murder, Race, Justice: The State vs. Darryl Hunt, by Phoebe Zerwick from The Winston-Salem Journal, November 2003

Closed Doors - Winston-Salem Journal  Part 8 from Murder, Race, Justice: The State vs. Darryl Hunt, by Phoebe Zerwick from The Winston-Salem Journal, November 2003

Murder, Race, Justice: The State vs. Darryl Hunt  website for entire 8-part series, Murder, Race, Justice: The State vs. Darryl Hunt, by Phoebe Zerwick from The Winston-Salem Journal, November 2003

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