The Trials of Darryl Hunt
by Ed Moore
Premieres Thursday, April 26, at 8PM. Only on HBO.
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The Trials of Darryl Hunt follows his 20-year-long odyssey through the American legal system, all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, as he and his supporters struggle to prove his innocence in the brutal rape and murder of Deborah Sykes, a copy editor for the Winston-Salem Sentinel, on August 10, 1984.
From the get-go, community leaders and Hunt’s inexperienced but dedicated defense lawyers believed that the case against Hunt, a 20-year-old African-American was, at best, circumstantial, with considerable room for reasonable doubt. There was no physical evidence placing him at the scene (pubic hair and saliva samples from the crime scene didn’t match samples from Hunt), no murder weapon, and questionable witnesses, including a purported eyewitness who gave a false name and had an extensive criminal background; a 14-year-old cocaine-addicted prostitute; and a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Nonetheless, Hunt was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, and then convicted again by an all-white jury at his second trial six years later.
Systemic racism can explain part of what happened—the state of North Carolina doesn’t come out looking too good here—but the haste with which police and prosecutors descended on Hunt explains just as much. Hunt contends that prosecutors offered him $12,000 to peg his friend, Sammy Mitchell, for the crime and that when he refused, they turned their attentions to him. At one point, the Winston-Salem chief of police says, “Of course, our objective from the very beginning was to make a charge, and we’ve accomplished that,” as if arresting someone—anyone—for the crime took precedence over making sure that the right man was put on trial.
Directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg follow all of the legal wrangles, with prosecutors unwilling to reopen the case, police unwilling to share evidence and judicial and media indifference. They weave the story together through archival news footage, grisly crime scene photos and interviews with Hunt, his lawyers, prosecutors and other interested parties, all accompanied by Paul Brill’s often haunting score, and lay out the case—from murder to prosecution to all the frustrating steps after—with disconcerting clarity.
Stern and Sundberg make it obvious early on that Darryl Hunt had nothing to do with the rape and murder of Deborah Sykes. Once convicted, though, how can he and those who believe him convince anybody else, including the government, the press and Sykes’s mother (who says more than once that she believes the police got the right man for her daughter’s murder), of that fact? Even when DNA evidence shows that Hunt didn’t rape Sykes, he remains in jail (on the notion that he still could—could—have had something to do with the crime), as if nobody in authority cared that there might be a rapist/murderer still out there preying on women. The powers-that-be had someone behind bars; that was enough.
The Trials of Darryl Hunt is designed to make you angry, and it does so effectively. It’s also designed to make you wonder: How many more Darryl Hunts are languishing in U.S. prisons for crimes they didn’t commit? And what are we going to do about—or for—them?
Ed Moore is a film critic in Chicago.
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