For the second consecutive year, North Carolina’s justice system has come under the microscope of a well-regarded documentary film. Last year, two highly regarded films examined different cases. The Staircase looked at the failure of Michael Peterson’s high-priced murder defense, while After Innocence spotlighted Durham’s Ronald Cotton, a man who was wrongly convicted of rape, and his reconciliation with his accuser who recanted her mistaken identification. Now there’s The Trials of Darryl Hunt.

Last month, audiences at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, filled up theaters for a first glimpse at the story of a Winston-Salem man who spent 19 years in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit. The Trials of Darryl Hunt will appear locally in April at Durham’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival before being embargoed for an HBO broadcast premiere in early 2007.

Hunt, his wife, April, and two key supporters in the film were on hand all week in Park City, appearing to standing ovations after public screenings. In an interview in a Park City hotel, director Ricki Stern recounted the reactions. “Each audience was different but they were all intensely moved by the story and the opportunity to meet the people in the story,” she says.

“It was interesting to stand up there afterward and look out and see red eyes everywhere, in the women and the men,” says the New York-based filmmaker, who spent a year in graduate school at UNC-Chapel Hill before beginning the film with co-director Anne Sundberg.

Darryl Hunt was an unformed 19-year-old when Deborah Sykes, a copy editor with the now-defunct Winston-Salem Sentinel, was kidnapped, raped and murdered. Hunt had a record of a minor offense or two, but he was no killer. He was just a poor black man who became an easy mark for an array of cynical jailhouse snitches, ruthless criminals, Klan-tinged witnesses and a law enforcement establishment that was anxious to close a terrifying case.

Even after serious questions were raised about the fairness of his trial and the quality of the evidence used against him, Hunt remained in prison. In 1990 he turned down a plea bargain that would have set him free and ended up being convicted in a second trial before an all-white Catawba County jury that was subjected to a racist, “lock up your daughters” prosecutorial summation.

In 1994, when new DNA testing techniques cleared him from any contact with the victim, he remained in prison. In late 2003, Hunt was finally freed after an intense public campaign, a series of articles in the Winston-Salem Journal and, most crucially, a positive DNA match with another man.

Although law enforcement apologists might once again see a reason to proclaim that “the system works,” it is clear that only extraordinary persistence and thousands of minimally billed legal hours can shake a wrongly convicted man from the state’s punitive grasp.

Larry Little was one supporter who was behind Hunt from the beginning. Little was a fixture in the Winston-Salem activist community who co-founded the local chapter of the Black Panther party in 1969. Hunt had played basketball in Little’s youth league, and the older man knew that Hunt could not have committed such a vicious crime. Little rallied the black community behind Hunt, and the appalling trial led him to another life decision. “Darryl was convicted on June 17, 1985, and in August I was starting law school at Wake Forest,” says Little, who teaches at Winston-Salem State University.

Darryl Hunt was the first capital defendant for Mark Rabil, then a young associate recently graduated from law school. One of the film’s most wrenching scenes was shot in his office, when he tearfully informed Hunt over the phone that the N.C. Supreme Court had declined to order a third trial in response to the DNA results. Rabil is now an assistant capital defender in North Carolina as well as an adjunct professor at Wake Forest University.

After his exoneration and a hefty damages award from state taxpayers, Hunt lives today in Winston-Salem with his wife. Through the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice, he uses his experiences and resources to help ease the transition of prison parolees back into civilian society.

In the film and in person, Hunt’s serenity and lack of bitterness are astonishing. “If you believe in a higher power, then you have to give forgiveness,” he says, speaking with the Independent. “You can’t have it just one way, of asking God to forgive you.”

Even now, though, there are members of the Winston-Salem police department who remained convinced of his guilt. “There have been some minor incidents” of police intimidation, he says. “Sometimes I’ll be followed close for a quarter mile or so, then they’ll speed off and go around me.”

Fortunately, though, time–which may or may not heal all wounds–does have a way of clearing dead wood out of a police department. “The new [black] chief has a better rein on the department,” says Hunt. “And a lot of the officers today are new.” x

Links: Darryl Hunt’s foundation
Film Web site