Winston-Salem man reflects on serving 19 years in prison for crime he didn’t commit

Darryl Hunt, who was wrongly convicted of murder in 1984, poses for a portrait on Monday, July 28, 2014 in Winston-Salem, N.C. (Andrew Dye/Journal)

Darryl Hunt, who was wrongly convicted of murder in 1984, poses for a portrait on Monday, July 28, 2014 in Winston-Salem, N.C. (Andrew Dye/Journal)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Darryl Hunt has been a free man for a little more than 10 years now, but he remains guarded, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

He still pauses sometimes before unlocking the door to his house because part of him expects the door to open automatically, like the doors to his cell when he was imprisoned for nearly 19 years for a crime he didn’t commit — the murder of Deborah Sykes, a 25-year-old copy editor at The Sentinel, an afternoon newspaper in Winston-Salem that closed in 1985.

And after he leaves the house and before he returns, Hunt drives to an ATM. It’s not that he needs money in his pocket. He’s focused on getting a receipt and he takes comfort in knowing that his picture is taken.

Those two things — a receipt and his picture — serve as his alibi just in case Winston-Salem police officers pick him up and throw him in jail. He knows the last time that happened — on Sept. 11, 1984, when he was initially arrested. He was charged Sept. 14, 1984 with Sykes’ murder and ended up spending a good portion of his life behind bars.

“The fear of being picked up for something you didn’t do?” he said. “I never leave out the door without that being on my mind.”

Aug. 10 was the 30 th anniversary of Sykes’ death. Feb. 6 was the 10 th anniversary of Hunt’s exoneration. He was the 141 st person in the United States to have a conviction overturned through DNA evidence. According to the Innocence Project, there have been 317 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States.

Another date sticks out for him — Dec. 24, 2003, the day he walked out of prison after DNA evidence pointed to another man, Williard Brown, as the one who raped and fatally stabbed Sykes.

Hunt is 49. Specks of gray mark his thin beard, but he looks remarkably the same. The cornrows he wore when he was arrested are long gone. He keeps his hair short. He looks much more muscular and wears a Miami Heat T-shirt; he likes the colors and he likes Lebron James, who recently left the Heat to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

After he was exonerated, Hunt was pardoned by then-Gov. Mike Easley. The city of Winston-Salem awarded him more than $1.6 million and released a report from a citizens review committee that uncovered a myriad of mistakes in the police investigation. The state awarded him more than $300,000.

But money can’t make up for the almost 19 years he lost. He doesn’t celebrate the anniversary of his exoneration. He said he knows it was a miracle that he was exonerated. If the DNA of Williard Brown’s brother had not been in a database, if Williard Brown hadn’t been already been in jail so police could get his DNA, if Brown hadn’t confessed, Hunt would still be in prison.

“Each year I’m alive, I think about it,” he said recently. “I didn’t want to do anything to celebrate. … For them, it’s a celebration. For you, it’s reliving it all over again.”

Brutal crime

Doug Sykes met his wife, Deborah, at North Iredell High School.

They were the quintessential high school sweethearts. And they married soon after, planning a life together.

When Deborah Sykes got the job at The Sentinel, the couple was living in Georgia, he said. She commuted from Mooresville — where they lived with Doug Sykes’ parents — to downtown Winston-Salem. They would soon move into a house in King.

Jo Dawson, then the news editor at The Sentinel, said Deborah Sykes always came to work on time, at 6 a.m. every day. She had an easy smile.

“She was quiet, competent and hard-working,” Dawson said by email. “She fit in quickly and was excited that she and her husband had found a house.”

But on Aug. 10, 1984, Deborah Sykes was late, so late that Dawson walked down West End Boulevard looking for her. Fred Flagler, the paper’s managing editor, called police. Doug Sykes was notified.

At about 1:55 p.m. that day, Deborah Sykes’ body was found on a grassy slope off West End Boulevard across the street from Crystal Towers, a high-rise apartment complex for seniors. She was found 1½ blocks from the newspaper.

There were stab wounds all over her body. She had been raped. A pathologist at Chapel Hill said she was stabbed 16 times. The fatal blow was a stab wound that went 5 inches deep, piercing her heart.

Annette Fuller, who worked at The Sentinel, was sitting next to Flagler’s office and heard when Evelyn Jefferson, Deborah Sykes’ mother, learned that her daughter was dead.

“She screamed loud and long,” Fuller said. “It was horrible.”

The case was high-profile and racially charged. Deborah Sykes was white. Eyewitnesses said they saw a black man accosting her. Weeks later, police zeroed in on Hunt, partly because of Johnny Gray, who called police, gave incorrect directions and told the dispatcher that he was Sammy Mitchell, Hunt’s best friend at the time and who had a long history with the police.

By September, Hunt was behind bars, charged with Deborah Sykes’ murder. The next year, he was convicted of first-degree murder and barely escaped getting the death penalty. The conviction was overturned, and he was tried again, in Surry County, in 1990, and again he was convicted.

Hunt maintained his innocence. Many blacks believed him. Many whites thought that he was guilty. And it took nearly 19 years before Hunt’s claims of innocence were vindicated.

“I could never understand why the courts turned me down,” Hunt said. “Now I’ve been out and working with the system on the local level and the national level, I get it. It’s political. Most people believe it’s about justice. It’s not. It’s the political will of someone who wants to be in power.”

Mistakes, missed opportunities

For much of the 19 years that Hunt languished in prison, his longtime attorney, Mark Rabil, worked to get him out.

Rabil and others — including Gordon Jenkins, who represented Hunt for years with Rabil; James Ferguson; and Ben Dowling-Sendor — spent countless hours filing appeals in Forsyth Superior Court, state appellate court and the U.S. Supreme Court.

And they were all rejected.

For years, when Aug. 10 came around, Rabil would look out of his window in the morning to see what the weather was like and how dark or light it was because the case against Darryl Hunt rested largely on eyewitnesses. Rabil said in the first few years, he would go out to the crime scene.

He said he was obsessed with trying to find out who killed Deborah Sykes, because if he could do that, if he could find the killer, then he could get Hunt out of prison.

“From day one, I needed to solve it,” said Rabil, a former capital defense lawyer and now director of the Innocence and Justice Clinic at Wake Forest University School of Law.

Larry Little was a Winston-Salem city alderman and longtime community activist in the 1980s. He also knew Hunt because he played basketball with him. He didn’t know him well but knew enough about him to know that there was no way Hunt could have committed such a violent act. Hunt had no history of violence.

When Hunt was arrested and his picture appeared in the newspaper, Little went to the jail and talked to Hunt, who told Little he was innocent. Then Little started investigating, and the inconsistencies started piling up. For one, Hunt wore his hair then in cornrows, but none of the witnesses mentioned that, Little said.

The arrest warrant said the killer wore a T-shirt with a spider design, the kind of shirt that Hunt owned. But, as Little later found, Hunt couldn’t have been wearing that shirt on Aug. 10, 1984, because the shirt wasn’t available in Winston-Salem until a couple of weeks before Hunt was arrested in September.

“At that point, I believed the police was engaged in something nefarious,” Little said.

That wasn’t all.

The Winston-Salem Journal published “Murder, Race, Justice: The State vs. Darryl Hunt,” an eight-part series on the case that outlined numerous problems with the police investigation and the prosecution. None of the eyewitnesses got a good look at the perpetrator and ended up telling police what they wanted to hear. One witness, Thomas Murphy, spent time with Det. Jim Daulton riding around in a car trying to see if they could find the man that Murphy said he saw attacking Deborah Sykes.

The series noted that police failed to thoroughly investigate other suspects and ignored similarities to a Feb. 2, 1985, rape at what was then known as Integon. Regina Lane had identified Williard Brown as the man who had raped her and slashed her face 12 times. She had also told police that she saw similarities between her attack and that of Deborah Sykes, but police ignored her. She said she didn’t press charges because she couldn’t be 100 percent sure of her identification.

Rabil learned about the 1985 rape through news accounts and through Hunt, but said that police and prosecutors wouldn’t give him any information about the case. For years, police mistakenly believed that Brown was in prison when Deborah Sykes was attacked. He wasn’t; he had been released in June 1984. Rabil didn’t learn that Regina Lane had identified Brown in her attack until December 2003.

In 1994, DNA excluded Hunt as the rapist. Hunt thought he was going home, but he didn’t. Prosecutors kept changing their theory — they believed that Hunt was one of two, three or possibly four people who were involved. Those people included Mitchell, who was never charged, and Gray, who first called 911 and said he was Mitchell. Later DNA tests excluded them, as well.

Prosecutors, including then-Forsyth County District Attorney Tom Keith, said at the time that the DNA results alone didn’t exonerate Hunt.

And as the case dragged through the court system, the frustrations of those supporting Hunt grew. That included the Rev. John Mendez of Emmanuel Baptist Church, the Rev. Carlton Eversley of Dellabrook Presbyterian Church, Imam Khalid Griggs and the late writer Maya Angelou.

Little spent so much time talking about the case that even some of his family members told him to let go. He blamed the Journal and WXII television for what he called biased coverage. The Journal series admitted that the newspaper at the time raised few questions about the case.

When, in 2003, Little heard that Hunt was being released from prison after new DNA evidence led police to Brown — the same Williard Brown that police had ignored so many years before — Little didn’t believe it. He was on his way to take some items to the city dump when he heard the news.

He raced to the jail. “I had been waiting for so long,” he said.

Hard to move on

Doug Sykes has moved on in many ways, but he has never forgotten Deborah Sykes, his high school sweetheart. He moved to Chattanooga, Tenn., in 1987 and got re-married. He has two children, one an adult and the other a teenager.

He owns a landscaping and irrigation business that he started about eight years ago.

Doug Sykes doesn’t do anything special when Aug. 10 comes around. And he doesn’t much like to talk about that time, one that he describes as confusing and a nightmare.

“It’s a day I’ll never forget,” he said.

He also said he believes to this day that Hunt had something to do with his wife’s murder. He understands that according to the DNA evidence, Williard Brown raped his wife. But based on the evidence he heard at two trials, he said he thinks Hunt is guilty.

“I believe (Hunt) was there,” Sykes said.

Evelyn Jefferson, Deborah Sykes’ mother, also had a hard time believing that Hunt was not involved in her daughter’s death.

“I still agree with my son-in-law that my daughter was not killed by one person, and that the crime this man was convicted of was not rape but the crime of murder,” Jefferson said in court during the hearing in which Hunt was exonerated.

She hasn’t said anything publicly since then. Efforts to reach Jefferson were unsuccessful.

Keith, who said he had for years believed Hunt was guilty, said he tells anyone now that Hunt is innocent. What convinced him was when Brown told police that he had cut himself while stabbing Deborah Sykes. Then, Keith said, Winston-Salem Police Det. Mike Rowe and SBI Agent Scott Williams looked at a photograph of the crime scene and could see one trail of blood going one way belonging to Deborah Sykes, and another trail going in the opposite direction, which would belong to Deborah Sykes’ attacker.

Today, Keith acknowledges that there were mistakes by the police and prosecutors, but he also blames Hunt’s supporters and defense attorneys. He said if they had come to him with a summary of the case in the mid-1990s and explained succinctly why they believed Hunt was innocent, he might have looked at the case a lot sooner. If they had allowed Hunt to take a polygraph, he said, he would have taken a closer look.

Keith said in 1994 that he was dealing with almost 50 homicides and trying to run his office. He said he didn’t have time to read 20,000 pages of transcripts, which he said he would have had to read three times to completely get a handle on the case.

Keith also blames the fact that his office was severely understaffed and that the police department didn’t have enough career detectives like Rowe who could properly investigate the case.

He said what happened to Hunt couldn’t possibly happen again.

Others disagree. They point to the case of Kalvin Michael Smith, a black man who was convicted in 1997 of severely assaulting a white woman named Jill Marker, the assistant manager at the now-closed Silk Plant Forest Store. A 2004 series by the Winston-Salem Journal showed numerous problems with the police investigation and prosecution of the case, including questionable identification by Marker, who suffered brain injuries. The series also reported that the police failed to thoroughly investigate other possible suspects, including the late Kenneth Lamoureux, who was seen at the store the night of the attack on Marker and who had a history of violence. Smith, who has maintained his innocence, is appealing his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We’re dealing with the same mess, and you would have thought in Winston-Salem after the Darryl Hunt situation, we wouldn’t be fighting the same battles over Kalvin Michael Smith,” Little said. “That’s disheartening.”

For Hunt, moving on hasn’t been easy. Rabil and Hunt have grown close over the years, the roles of attorney and client morphing into colleagues and best friends. When they dine out in mostly black neighborhoods, people know Hunt and embrace him, Rabil said.

When they dine out in mostly white neighborhoods, the atmosphere is quieter.

Hunt said he has chosen to remain in Winston-Salem, even if it is uncomfortable. He said he wants to remind people that an injustice happened in Winston-Salem and that his presence can help prevent what happened to him from happening to someone else.

These days, Hunt works with the Innocence and Justice Clinic at Wake Forest University School of Law. Through the clinic, he goes to Experiment for Self-Reliance to help people get their criminal records expunged, does public speaking and talks to law students about his case.

Hunt is also on the board of directors for the N.C. Center for Actual Innocence. He advocated strongly for the now-repealed Racial Justice Act that prohibited seeking or imposing the death penalty on the basis of race, and he has spoken out on other cases in which he believes people have been wrongfully convicted, such as the Smith case.

But he said he doesn’t have much trust in the criminal justice system.

Yes, he said, things have changed. The mentality — the kind that allows people to close their eyes to an obvious injustice like his — hasn’t.

“There has been a lot of window-dressing,” he said. “When you look at … 30 years, it’s heartbreaking.”

He said he finds hope these days in talking to young people because that’s where he sees the roots of change.

“That keeps me fighting,” he said. “We have to change. I believe it’s only through our kids that things are going to change.”

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