Darryl Hunt walked out of the Forsyth County Jail just before noon yesterday.
It was a defining moment in a complex murder case - the 1984 rape and stabbing death of Deborah Sykes - that for nearly 20 years has divided Winston-Salem along racial lines and cast doubt on the local justice system.
"It feels great ... to finally be free and vindicated," Hunt said on the jail steps as television cameras crowded to get a good shot of him. "I don't think there's words to express how I feel."
Hunt was released on an unsecured $250,000 bond, with a hearing set for Feb. 6 that could overturn his murder conviction.
The case against Hunt, who has maintained his innocence from the start, collapsed this week with the arrest of Willard E. Brown.
Brown became a suspect after a new round of DNA testing identified him as the source of the semen recovered from Sykes.
On Monday, police charged Brown, 43, with murder, rape, kidnapping and robbery in her death.
Police Chief Linda Davis said yesterday that she has asked the State Bureau of Investigation to take over the rest of the investigation, to remove all doubt about the integrity of the case, a move suggested this week by Mayor Allen Joines and some members of the Winston-Salem City Council.
Hunt's supporters waited for him in the jail lobby, chanting "Darryl Hunt is free. Darryl Hunt is free, Darryl Hunt is free," as he and his wife embraced.
Sykes, 25, was stabbed to death Aug. 10, 1984, on her way to work at the downtown offices of The Sentinel, then the afternoon newspaper. Her slaying has been investigated three times - twice by the city police department and once in 1986 by the police and SBI together. Three prosecutors have tried the case, and the state and appellate courts have reviewed the evidence against Hunt, never finding enough reason to exonerate him even when DNA tests in 1994 showed that he was not the rapist.
The police knew that Brown had been identified by the victim in another downtown rape as early as 1985, but they mistakenly thought that he was in prison the day of Sykes' murder, and did not pursue him as a suspect in her death.
It wasn't until last week that police checked with the records division at the N.C. Department of Correction and learned that he had been released in June 1984, two months before Sykes' murder.
According to the release order for Hunt signed by Judge Anderson Cromer of Forsyth Superior Court, Brown confessed Monday to killing Sykes, telling investigators that he acted alone. He also agreed to cooperate with law enforcement so that Hunt could be released.
"It makes you sick to your stomach that someone can be in jail for a long time and not be guilty of anything," said Sheriff Bill Schatzman, whose office has not been involved in the case but runs the jail where Hunt has been since yesterday. "We're human beings, but the system is fallible."
No one was ready just yet to apologize to Hunt for the mistake.
At the hearing Feb. 6, if investigators have not found evidence that links Hunt and Brown, then Hunt will likely go free for good, said Tom Keith, Forsyth County's district attorney.
"If you believe everything Mr. Brown says, then that certainly exonerates him," Keith said.
But Keith added that if information linking Hunt to Brown surfaces, that evidence would be presented to the judge. It would then be up to the judge to determine whether Hunt should be jailed again or let go.
Keith also said that one of the reasons he agreed to Hunt's release at this time is because he will be eligible for parole in about a year.
Events lead to release
Many people connected with the case had thought that Hunt would be released - at least temporarily - Tuesday night.
Keith worked until after 9 p.m. Tuesday, but decided that there was not enough information to ask a judge to decide on Hunt's immediate fate. Keith said he received a call from investigators after midnight that gave him enough information to work with Hunt's attorneys for his release.
Keith would not say yesterday what that information was.
He did say that he called Mark Rabil, Hunt's attorney, about 5:30 a.m. yesterday and arranged to meet him and Cromer at the Forsyth County Hall of Justice later in the morning. Cromer had signed the original order in April that instructed investigators to test the DNA sample from the crime scene against state and national databases of convicted felons.
That testing was delayed until last month. Investigators found a close match, and followed that lead to Brown, whose DNA, they say, matched the semen evidence in the Sykes case.
Hunt's supporters have long criticized Keith and the Winston-Salem Police Department for the way they have handled the case.
An eight-part series by the Winston-Salem Journal last month documented flaws in the case against Hunt, showing that police used questionable tactics and witnesses to focus on him as a suspect. The series also explained how authorities changed their theory of the crime once DNA evidence in 1994 showed that Hunt did not rape Sykes. The series pointed out another downtown rape, in 1985, in which the victim had identified Brown but decided not to press charges. As recently as last month, the police still believed that Brown was in prison when Sykes was killed.
Hunt's supporters renewed their criticism with the week's developments, saying that authorities did not share the information they had on Brown with Hunt's attorneys and did not work quickly enough to release Hunt once Brown surfaced as a suspect.
Keith said that his office has argued the case over the years with the best evidence available at the time, and that several judges agreed.
Yesterday, Keith praised the police department's work to identify Brown, particularly Detective Mike Rowe, who started checking into potential new suspects even before complete DNA results were available.
Police did not have a sample of Brown's DNA in either the state or federal database, but a close relative was a near-perfect match, Keith said. Investigators began focusing on Brown after looking into his criminal past.
Keith said that Brown's DNA sample was "legally obtained" by investigators, but he would not say how.
History of the case
The police never had any physical evidence to tie Hunt to Sykes' death.
Instead, they relied on eyewitnesses, including a man named Johnny Gray, who first called 911 to report the attack using a false name - that of Sammy Mitchell. When he came forward to acknowledge making the call two weeks later, Gray identified not Hunt but another man as the attacker. But that person was in jail at the time. Authorities later came to believe that Gray himself may have been involved.
The witnesses against Hunt all had questionable backgrounds. Gray was later convicted in an unrelated murder and died in prison in 2001. Margaret Crawford, a 14-year-old prostitute who was Hunt's girlfriend at the time, gave statements that implicated Hunt, but she recently said that she lied. Thomas Murphy, the first witness to identify Hunt, had once been a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
The case was racially charged from the start, and Hunt's supporters always feared that he was railroaded because authorities would not allow the rape and murder of a young white woman go unpunished.
At his first trial in 1985, the district attorney excused all but one black juror, believing that blacks would be more likely to be skeptical of the evidence against Hunt. After winning an appeal, Hunt's second trial, in 1990, was moved to Catawba County, where the black population is half that of Forsyth. An all-white jury convicted him the second time.
He appealed that conviction, arguing that prosecutors withheld evidence and that the DNA evidence developed in 1994 excluding him as the semen source entitled him to a third trial. Hunt lost his last appeal in federal court in 2000. The request to use the database search to try to match the DNA was his last hope.
Dozens of Hunt supporters, who had been at Emmanuel Baptist Church on Tuesday night expecting his release, returned yesterday.
State Rep. Larry Womble, D-Forsyth, stood outside with a cell phone in one hand and an electronic address book in the other, calling people and urging them to come to the church or, at the very least, "spread the word."
Womble and Steve Boyd, a professor at Wake Forest University, provided updates as the hours passed. Many people left the church for the jail to be there when Hunt was released. Others stayed behind, singing hymns as Council Member Joycelyn Johnson played the church piano. Earlier, she had led people in an altered version of "We Shall Overcome":
"Darryl has overcome, Darryl has overcome, Darryl has overcome today. Deep in our hearts, we did believe, Darryl would overcome some day."
Just before 1 p.m., Hunt walked hand in hand with his wife, April, into the arms of some of his longtime supporters, including Womble and state Rep. Earline Parmon, D-Forsyth.
With a nod of his head, Hunt acknowledged his supporters. Estella McFadden, a longtime member of the Darryl Hunt Defense Committee, slipped him a laminated bookmark with the obituary of Mattie Mitchell. She was the mother of Sammy Mitchell, Hunt's friend who was charged in Sykes' murder but never tried. Mitchell, in prison on another murder, hopes to have the Sykes charge reviewed, his attorney said.
Later, Hunt stood before his supporters. The crowd quieted.
Hunt's words came slowly. He started with Larry Little, a former Winston-Salem alderman and the founder of the defense committee, whom he praised for fighting for him.
Fiery sermons from the Rev. John Mendez and the Rev. Carlton Eversley gave him strength, Hunt said. It didn't matter, Hunt said, that he was Muslim and they were Christian.
"The word of God is everywhere," he said. "His truth shines."
Rabil, Hunt's longtime attorney, broke down as Hunt spoke of Rabil's commitment. Hunt told how dedicated his attorney was in 1993, when Rabil's first wife was sick. She later died of cancer. Little patted Rabil on his back.
"They gave me the strength to maintain," Hunt said. "There were times I felt like I was going crazy being locked up."
His wife, April, also provided immeasurable support, he said, especially in 2000 when a federal appeals court and the U.S. Supreme Court turned down Hunt's request for a third trial based on the DNA results, Hunt said. They married shortly after those legal defeats, but Hunt said he was afraid that she wouldn't want to be his wife.
But April told him, "What's that got to do with what we're doing?"
At times, Hunt breathed a little heavier, as he did when he spoke about Mattie Mitchell.
"Ms. Mitchell was like a mother to me," he said. "She would get on me if I didn't call on time or write when I was supposed to."
He also talked about Sammy Mitchell, how some people may not have liked him.
"I think with the news of what's going on ... you don't have to like him but he's just as innocent as I am," he said. "Don't nobody forget him."
Hunt told his supporters that he hoped for healing.
"I pray that we can all - black, white, blue and green, everybody - can heal from this and grow as a community so we won't be separated by race," he said. "Injustice can happen to anyone. I pray that we, together, will not allow this to happen to anyone else."
Hunt told his supporters that he is not sure what his future holds, beyond taking care of his family and finishing his education at Winston-Salem State University.
Asked what he wanted to do that he had not been able to during his years in prison, he had a simple answer.
"I just want to watch the sun go down."
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