The burden of being Darryl Hunt was never light.
Mark Rabil, Hunt’s defense attorney and later a close friend, talked about that on Sunday, hours after Hunt was found dead in a vehicle at a shopping center in Winston-Salem.
Rabil called Hunt a lost youth. Hunt never knew his father, and his mother, Doris, was murdered when he was 10 years old, two weeks after he found out she was his mother. No one has ever been arrested in that case, Rabil said.
By age 19, Hunt had had run-ins with law enforcement and a couple of misdemeanor charges when he was charged in the murder of Deborah Sykes, a 25-year-old newspaper copy editor.
Based mostly on eyewitness accounts, Hunt was sentenced to life in prison in 1985, spared from the death penalty by one juror’s vote. His life sentence was upheld in a second trial.
The 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. It was determined that none of the eyewitnesses got a good look at the perpetrator and ended up telling police what they thought officers wanted to hear.
DNA evidence re-examined in 2003 led police to Williard Brown, who confessed to the killing of Sykes.
Hunt was released from prison on Christmas Eve 2003, exonerated in February 2004 from a wrongful murder conviction and received a pardon of innocence from then-Gov. Mike Easley in April 2004. Hunt was the subject of the 2006 documentary, “The Trials of Darryl Hunt.’’
Although his body was free from a prison cell for more than 12 years, close friends said Sunday that Hunt never seemed to feel free in his mind and with his emotions.
“Nineteen years of wrongful incarceration is what killed Darryl Hunt,” Rabil said.
“It is amazing he survived as long as he did given all the injuries inflicted on him. At some point, like a solider that kept charging the enemy after being shot several times, he finally fell.”
Fighting for others
Hunt wasted little time getting involved in what eventually became the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice, which sought to assist individuals wrongfully conflicted and help ease the return to society those who had been rightfully convicted and served their prison term.
In an August 2014 article in the Journal, Hunt said “each year I’m alive, I think about” the odds of his exoneration occurring.
“I didn’t want to do anything to celebrate” being out of prison more than 10 years at that time. “For them, it’s a celebration. For you, it’s reliving it all over again.”
The advocacy was “almost nonstop for him once he was released,” said the Rev. John Mendez of Emmanuel Baptist Church, one of Hunt’s supporters from the time of his incarceration and a close friend.
For example, Mendez eventually told Hunt that Mendez had to cut back on accompanying him to speeches and events because it was wearing him out at times.
“He fought the injustice of his case and he won,” Mendez said. “He stood on his innocence when he could have been released earlier with a plea bargain. He never wavered from his testimony. He was exonerated.
“What didn’t get calculated into the equation was how he internalized his fight with the legal system. It became a form of internal obsession to not let happen to others what happened to him.”
Mendez said he felt that “Darryl didn’t leave time for himself. He never took the time to get the counseling that someone who had his experience needed.
“It’s hard to say whether it (the project) was too much for him, but he kept up the pace right up until he died.”
The Rev. Carlton Eversley, pastor of Dellabrook Presbyterian Church, pondered what person would be able to bear Hunt’s burden without deep scars.
“What price do you put on 19 years in prison?” Eversley asked.
Pressure after his release
Jet Hollander served on a citizens committee in 2005-06 that addressed the Sykes case. He later became a good friend of Hunt through their work on innocence commissions.
The committee’s focus was not on who committed crimes, but on whether Winston-Salem police handled the case appropriately and thoroughly — and whether procedures would prevent missteps. The committee determined that police mistakenly arrested Hunt on the strength of eyewitness identification.
The city council and Mayor Allen Joines embraced the report, saying in February 2007 that “it reveals actions of city officers and employees, and of others, which fall far short of the standards this city holds and espouses. ... The city further expresses its determination to do all in its power to ensure that such a tragic series of events may never happen again.”
The city of Winston-Salem awarded Hunt more than $1.6 million, while the state awarded more than $300,000. Much of those monies Hunt put into his project and other similar efforts.
Eversley said Hunt was exploited by some of the people he sought to help.
“Some people thought he had gotten paid, and they wanted a piece of what he had,” Eversley said.
“They knew he was determined to make contributions with his project because he knew the cruelty of the legal system all too well.”
Rabil said it was well-known that Hunt chose to remain in Winston-Salem upon his release “out of appreciation for the support he received here while incarcerated.”
When Hunt and Rabil dined out in mostly black neighborhoods, people knew Hunt and embraced him, Rabil said. When they dined out in mostly white neighborhoods, the atmosphere was quieter. Hunt said he chose to remain in Winston-Salem, even if it was uncomfortable.
“He felt he couldn’t take time off from being the voice of so many of the voiceless,” Rabil said.
“A lot of people hit him up for favors. Some people just expected too much from him, with the strain on him getting tremendous over time because he didn’t want ‘I can’t help you’ or ‘I can’t attend your meeting.’ ”
Learning the system
Hunt said in August 2014 that he could “never understand why the courts turned me down.”
“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,” Hunt said.
Hollander said Hunt’s death is a “huge loss” in part because he had gained “such great insight into the legal system.”
“He knew what people were saying, what they meant and what they would do, so clearly and so rightly,” Hollander said.
Tom Keith, Forsyth’s district attorney during part of Hunt’s incarceration, fought Hunt’s release, saying the DNA results alone didn’t exonerate him.
After Hunt’s release, Keith and Hunt worked together on his project.
“He had zero tolerance for a client who promised to stay sober to get in his program, but fell off the wagon while on it,” Keith said.
“I told him one time that from my drug treatment court training that relapses were to be expected and excused as long as there was progress. He told me he had too many people trying to get in his program to waste his time on ones who would go back on their word.
“Even though I disagreed with some of his positions, I always respected his viewpoints and his passion to help people caught up in the system,” Keith said.
Call for officer training
Another aspect that Eversley, Hollander, Mendez and Rabil all cited as part of Hunt’s legacy was being a living Rorschach test for the local community and the local and state legal systems.
“It was proven that Darryl had nothing to do with Deborah Sykes’ death,” Hollander said.
Yet, they all said they still meet people “who swear he was involved, or that while it was a tragic situation he was in prison so long, they don’t understand the burden he carried,” Rabil said.
According to the August 2014 article on Hunt, Doug Sykes, Deborah’s husband and high school sweetheart, and her mother, Evelyn Jefferson, said they believed Hunt had something to do with her murder.
Keith said that “let me reiterate once and for all that he had nothing to do with the crime for which he was unjustly convicted and spent almost two decades in prison.
“Unfortunately, in spite of all of his good works after his release from prison, Winston-Salem still does not want to spend the money to develop a career detective ladder for major crimes to ensure that the crimes that carry the highest punishments have the best detectives and training possible to make sure that justice is done.
“Let’s hope his work to help people in the criminal justice system will continue. That would honor his life and be a testament to who he really was.”
Continuing the cause
Hollander said Hunt reminded him of Martin Luther King Jr. during a Feb. 17 appearance at Winston-Salem State University when Hunt spoke on the behalf of Kalvin Michael Smith.
Hunt became a passionate supporter of Smith, who was convicted in December 1997 to nearly 29 years in prison in the 1995 beating of Silk Plant Forest store employee Jill Marker.
Hollander said Hunt told the WSSU audience that he didn’t know how much time he had left, and encouraged them to continue his cause after he was gone. Rabil said Hunt said something similar at a Feb. 25 presentation at University of Virginia.
Hollander said Hunt was diagnosed with prostate cancer about 18 months ago and had reached the stage 4 level. “He had been getting treatment in Atlanta, which was the reason he was periodically visiting there,” Hollander said.
At the WSSU presentation in support of Smith, Hunt said he was “not the only person railroaded in Winston-Salem,” according to Larry Little, an attorney, a WSSU professor and a tireless supporter throughout Hunt’s incarceration. “The same people that railroaded me were involved in that case.”
Hunt told the students in attendance that “we have to, not ask for justice, but demand justice,”
“Kalvin draws his strength from you. Don’t give up.”
Journal reporter Michael Hewlett contributed to this story.