Darryl Hunt’s third act.

by Brian Clarey

Something awful happened in downtown

Winston-Salem on the morning of Aug. 10, 1984.

Deborah Sykes, a copy editor for The Winston-Salem Sentinel, was abducted on her way to work. It was early, 6 a.m., and eyewitnesses placed her with two black men on the sidewalk of 6th and Spruce streets, near the Crystal Towers apartment building.

Her body was found behind the apartment building grounds near a low fence made from wooden pylons. She was half-naked in the grass, her skirt pulled up above her waist. She had been raped. Sodomized. Stabbed to death, the killing blow an oblique knife wound to her heart. There on the grass behind the pylons she breathed her last.

It was the most brutal murder anyone could remember, and it happened in stark daylight in the busiest part of the city. Whoever did this was vicious, fearless, cold. Whoever did this was cruel, selfish, unable to recognize the sanctity of life in another.

And when a black man does something like this to a white woman – particularly in the American South in 1984 – it stirs dark emotions like hate and fear; it fires a certain brand of outrage; it awakens ancient impulses. In the bad old days, a man of color could get hung from a tree limb for even talking about having sex, or whistling, or even making vague allusions to intimacy with a white woman. And in 1984, the bad old days weren’t so far behind.

Something awful happened, and then it kept happening.

An all-white jury convicted Darryl Hunt, a 19-year-old Winston-Salem man, of the crime. Evidence in that first trial included testimony by a former Klansman; a 14-year-old, drug-addicted prostitute; and a 911 phone call from a notorious streetsman.

The case went up for retrial in 1990, when Hunt was 25, because he turned down a chance to plead guilty for time served. Without any physical evidence, Hunt was again convicted and imprisoned for the murder of Deborah Sykes.

In 1994, when Hunt was 29, a DNA test revealed that all the samples collected from Sykes’ body were not his. A request for a new trial was denied.

In 2003, when Hunt was 38, the DNA sample was linked to Willard Brown, who confessed to the crime.

A couple months later, just before his 39th birthday, Darryl Hunt was fully exonerated in the murder of Deborah Sykes and released out into the world.

And last year, as Darryl Hunt turned 42, he was awarded about $2 million from the city and state.

Now, after half a lifetime coming up in Winston-Salem’s east side and half a lifetime behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit, Darryl Hunt finds himself in a corner office on the third floor with views of the courthouse and the jail.

He looks pretty good, bulky after years of prison workouts and fit enough to cut a figure in a patterned jacket, pleated slacks. He still speaks in an easygoing monotone, and his face still makes sunshine when he smiles.

He’s a millionaire, technically speaking, and he heads an impressive board at his eponymous foundation that includes politicians, educators and prominent businesspeople. He’s traveled around the world and gets celebrity treatment on his hometown streets. And though he rarely expresses it, he says he still feels anger, still knows fear. He still has nightmares.

This is Darryl Hunt’s third act.

Today, like most days, Darryl Hunt is trying to catch up – with yesterday’s caseload, with tomorrow’s associate applications, with 19 years of technology that’s passed him by like he’s Rip Van Winkle. He scrunches his face when picking up a line on his desk telephone, and he doesn’t really know how to use the computer at a workstation in the corner.

“It’s so hard to adjust to the simple things,” he says. “I haven’t caught a transit bus since I been home because I don’t understand it. I don’t know how, what with all the technology and the buses talking to you.

“I have a problem still to this day matching clothes,” he continues. “I have to call my wife or I have to go to the store and have them match up everything. Everything that I own, it come in sets. For 20 years I didn’t have to worry about matching. You got a pair of brown pants and a white T-shirt and that was it.”

The bookshelves are bare save for a few slim tomes – Life After Life, The Black Panthers, Long Time Coming, written by his sixth-grade teacher about his case. There are a few unused drug tests up there as well.

There’s a picture in here of him and longtime lawyer and friend Mark Rabil on the beach, and another in one of those novelty frames that says, “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” There are awards: from the Winston-Salem Urban League, the Sigma Heritage Award, and a sign on a sheet of paper: “Trust in Allah and tether your camel.” There is a framed poster and ticket stub from the premiere of the award-winning documentary about his second act, The Trials of Darryl Hunt. The poster shows his 1984 mugshot: young, slim, cornrowed, sullen.

“I hate that picture,” he says.

The nameplate on his desk reads, “Justice Advocate,” though in his role here at the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice he’s a public face, community liaison, mentor, mouthpiece and activist.

The roots of the thing came in Darryl’s prison years, from the coalition that worked to get him free. So naturally the project concerns itself with the wrongfully incarcerated and advocates for changes to the justice system. But also, the project works towards reintegration of ex-cons back into society in a meaningful way – that is, a way that doesn’t land them back inside.

“Most people who have been through these doors have been in prison,” he says.

Some of them need jobs and a place to live. Some don’t understand the rules of their probation. Some need substance abuse counseling or their GED. Some need a lawyer. Some need a little money to get by. Some need benefits and help navigating the system. And all of them need a bit of luck and a sprinkle of hope to stay free.

Darryl Hunt makes a call.

“Hey, what’s going on, man. This is Darryl. What’s happening?”

“You just need a lawyer. Who deals with traffic?”

“If you bought the car, you had to have insurance to get the plates. Yeah. You not gonna get them without the verification of insurance.”

“That I don’t know. I don’t know how that stuff works, but you should be able to get your stuff out your car.”

“Where is your stuff at?”

“Just call the police and ask if – how you can get your personal property out of your car.”

“Well, insurance should pay for that. Huh? The insurance company say you don’t got insurance? But what was on there, they don’t want to claim it because you just got on it. All you need is to get a lawyer. Get your momma to get a lawyer.”

“They don’t want to pay out. The insurance company just don’t want to pay out. So you got to get a traffic attorney to deal with it.”

“I don’t know if he handles that; you can call on him and find out. No, No – don’t call 911. Look in the book.”

“You got a pencil? I got it somewhere around here. Just tell ’em what you’re trying to do and they’ll put you through to the right people.”

He hangs up.

The caller, recently out of jail, wrecked his car on the same day he bought it and is having trouble getting his insurance company to pay damages.

“People will tell you anything,” he says, “if they think they can get away with it.”

I would have done things differently if I were Darryl Hunt.

First, I would have squeezed the city and state for at least $50 million. Then I would have had a few people wiped out, or at least beaten half to death. Then I would take my cash and split Winston-Salem for the greener pastures of… oh, I don’t know… how about Jamaica? There I’d temper the hate and fear with cocktails in coconut shells and everybody in Winston-Salem would forget the name Darryl Hunt.

This is not the path he chose.

In 1990, his lawyer Mark Rabil says, when Darryl was offered a plea for time served, “I tried to get him to take the deal. I said, “You’re never gonna get a fair trial. Get on a bus and go to California.'”

He also figures Hunt could have successfully sued Winston-Salem and North Carolina for $500,000 for each year he was wrongfully incarcerated, about $10 million. But both he and his client point out that, in the courtroom, things have a way of not working out for them.

“It would have ended up in federal court in an extremely conservative district,” Rabil says, “the worst in the whole US to file a civil rights case.”

And in 2004, when a woman in Colorado called and offered to pay Hunt’s tuition to a four-year university out there, Rabil again tried to act in his client’s best interests.

“I said, “Darryl, you need to do this. You need to get out of this town, get away.’ His response was, “This is where I need to be.’

“Darryl didn’t change in prison,” he continues. “He became stronger.”

So: a multi-million dollar settlement; the chance to travel the world and make a difference in society; the power of celebrity and notoriety. Could this experience have been the best thing ever to happen to Darryl Hunt?

Rabil shakes his head at that one.

“There’s two ways to look at that,” he says, “the white people’s way and the right way. The white people’s way is, “The best thing to happen to that boy was to get charged with murder and locked away. We knew all along that prison would be the best thing for him.’ They’re just trying to assuage their guilt. The right way is, there is no justification for putting any human through that.”

Rabil’s living a third act of his own. After being assigned the case in 1984 and sticking with it until Hunt’s release from prison 20 years later – “Darryl’s like flypaper,” he says. “Once you get involved you can’t pull yourself away.” – Rabil defends people facing the death penalty and he’s writing his own memoirs, the film rights for which are still in play.

Darryl’s cruising through town in his Lexus – not the top of the line, but a pretty nice one.

“My favorite pastime is just driving around,” he says. “I just like seeing the city, the mountains, the hills.”

The first thing he did when he got out, he says, was “sit on the front porch and watch the sunset. That was the thing. Then I’d get up every morning, smoke me a cigarette and watch the sun come up, just feeling free.”

He’s got a bit of money now, more than he did in 1984, that’s for sure. But the $2 million comes via a structured settlement that will be paid out over a number of years.

“I get a check every month like everybody else,” he says. “Coming out of prison, I came out with absolutely nothing. [I’ve got] a wife, three kids, you get a house and transportation, that’s about it. I don’t have a million dollars sitting around in a bank account.

“My board and my staff gets on me constantly about giving away money, so they took all that [authority] away from me,” he continues. “I wish the value of money was the same as it was in 1984.”

Rabil puts it in perspective.

“If he had gotten a job with the city [in 1984] like he wanted,” Rabil says, “He would have been twenty years into it. He could have retired in ten years. He would have health insurance and life insurance, a house, all those things you accumulate.”

So he’s got a Lexus and he’s cruising through the south side, past Winston-Salem State University, where one of his longtime proponents Larry Little now teaches political science.

He’s headed to Dr. J’s like he does every day for a trip through the buffet line – some baked chicken, a little mac and cheese, rice with gravy – and a bit of fellowship with the lunchtime crowd. Before he leaves, a young black man stops him by the door.

“You got a card on you? I seen some of your programs… I might want to get with that.”

Hunt pulls out a card, hands it off.

At a Church’s Chicken on the east side Hunt checks in on an associate – all the people he works with are called associates – who’s working here while easing back into society.

“They do a lot of hiring for us,” he says.

The guy’s not in yet, but Darryl’s 16-year-old daughter is working the register, so he says hello.

“Is that your daughter?” asks an old white guy waiting for his combo plate. “I didn’t know that.”

The guy rushes over to hold the door open for him.

Next it’s off to the post office off Waughtown Street, where Hunt needs to ship a package for the Innocence Project off to Duke University. He sends it registered mail, with both delivery and signature confirmation. While he’s standing in line a guy in a baseball cap and glasses taps him on the shoulder.

“I almost didn’t recognize you,” he says. “You think I can borrow that jacket for about two days?”

Sometimes, he says, people come up to him and apologize.

“I say, “Listen, you didn’t do it,'” he says.

Then it’s back to the office downtown. There’s a GED class this afternoon, and tomorrow they’ll be interviewing for new associates. On Thursday he’ll be speaking at Appalachian State University.

“I work every day,” he says. “I haven’t had a day off since I got out of prison.”

He’s also heavily invested in the case of Kalvin Michael Smith, the Winston-Salem man convicted of the 1995 assault of a pregnant shopkeeper who Hunt says was tried unfairly, just like he was.

And sometimes his work finds him in the courthouse, where he often runs into Don Tisdale, the district attorney who prosecuted Hunt in his first trial, and others who played roles in the second act of his life.

“He don’t speak,” Hunt says, “just walk by with a sly grin. They don’t care. They want me out of town, them. That’s their guilt; they have to carry that.”

Tom Keith, the district attorney who presided over Hunt’s final appeal, has apologized for his role in the affair.

“He took me to lunch,” Hunt says. “That’s why I respect him. He didn’t do it around cameras; he came to me one on one and took me to lunch and apologized.

“I forgave them all,” he continues. “In order for me to ask God to help me or forgive me, I must be able to forgive others, or else I don’t have the right to ask Him.”

Not everybody gets an Act III.

Hunt’s story could easily have ended in the first act, like so many other black kids before and after – out of school, on the street, time to burn.

By 19, Hunt had a few non-violent misdemeanors on his police record: vandalism, trespassing, resisting arrest, most issued when he was in the company of Sammy Mitchell, who was something of his mentor in the summer of 1984.

“I was just a normal kid,” Hunt says. “I wasn’t no A-student and I wasn’t book smart…. The only thing I wanted to do was work for the city of Winston-Salem in the street division like my grandfather did for 36 years. Get married. Get a house with a fence around it, a little dog. That was my American dream.”

And he could have met his fate in a second-act jailhouse scene, tied to a table as a lethal injection coursed through his veins, at the hands of prison skinheads or corrupt corrections officers.

“The scariest I have ever been was when I was first locked up, they put me in this one-man cell in the bottom corner with no windows,” he says. “[The guard] told me the last time they put a black man there, they found him hanging by his neck. He was known as a Klan guy. I had so many times…. When I think back to all of that, they probably could have got away with it… how easy it is to take somebody out. I had to adjust to a whole different environment where people was really trying to kill you. It wasn’t assumed; they was actually trying to kill you.”

Hunt says he’s lucky.

“I’m very fortunate; I’m blessed to be alive,” he says. “I was just one vote away from the death penalty. I probably would have been executed before the DNA came out. If Willard Brown had died, I’d still be in prison today. I was blessed to have people fight for me out here, and all the miracles that came about.”

So Darryl gets his decisive change, his applied wisdom, his satisfactory conclusion, maybe even his happy ending.

“You know, God has a plan for everything,” he says. “My focus was narrow. I just wanted a job with the city, a house, a family… that was it. God saw that there was something bigger he wanted me to do. It was all a way of preparing me for it. I believe God only puts on us what we can bear. He knows our limitations, and he knows how to get us in place.”

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