Darryl Hunt

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For the member of The Pogues, see Darryl Hunt (musician). For the former American football linebacker, see Daryl Hunt.

Darryl Hunt (1965 – March 13, 2016) was an African American man from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who, in 1984, was twice wrongfully convicted of the rape and murder of a young white newspaper copy editor, Deborah Sykes, but was later exonerated by DNA and other forms of evidence.[1][2] He served 19-and-one-half years in prison before he was freed after review and exoneration.

A modern cause célèbre, his case was said to have "helped define race relations in Winston-Salem for 20 years."[3]

Darryl Hunt became a Muslim and involved in the Innocence Project, as well as his own group called The Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice. This project is devoted to "educating the public about flaws in the criminal justice system, advocating for those wrongfully incarcerated as a result of those flaws, and providing resources and support for those trying to rebuild their lives."

Darryl Hunt died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his torso in Winston-Salem, NC, after a battle with Stage IV cancer.[4]

History of the case[edit]

Darryl Hunt was charged with murder due to inconsistencies occurring during the early phases of the case. The 19-year-old Hunt was charged with the rape of a local copy editor, Deborah Sykes. No physical evidence linked Hunt to the crime, but there were claims (later proven to be false) made by a hotel employee who saw Hunt enter the hotel bathroom later that morning and exit leaving bloody hand towels, as well as other witnesses who placed Hunt near the scene. He was convicted by an all-white jury,[5] and sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1994, DNA testing cleared Hunt of any sexual assault, and because sexual assault was at the heart of the murder case, the murder charges were then in question.

In December 2003, the DNA was run against the database, which determined that the DNA was that of Willard E. Brown. When he was brought in by police, Willard E. Brown confessed to the 1984 rape and stabbing death of Deborah Sykes.[1][6] His confession ultimately led to the release of Darryl Hunt, who had served about 19 years of a life sentence for a crime he always denied committing.

On February 6, 2004, Superior Court Judge Anderson Cromer vacated Hunt's murder conviction in the case.[1] Cromer dismissed the case against Hunt "with prejudice", meaning he can never be tried in the murder again.[1]

Although Sykes' mother took the stand at his release hearing and stated that she still thought he had killed her daughter, Hunt offered Deborah Sykes's mother his condolences for her loss, and forgave everyone for the years he spent in prison.

Darryl Hunt was the founder of The Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice and The Darryl Hunt Freedom Fighters. He was an award winning speaker, mentor, community activist and author. Hunt has spoken to hundreds of conferences, schools, film festivals and religious groups, in an effort to spread his message of reform and compassion. He played a pivotal role in North Carolina’s statewide effort to pass a Death Penalty Moratorium Bill and has appeared before a US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the death penalty appeals process.


In December 2005, an independent documentary film titled The Trials of Darryl Hunt, was named a Sundance Film Festival selection, and premiered in early 2006. The film documents, in its own words, "the story [of the brutal rape and murder] in North Carolina, and offers a deeply personal story of a wrongfully convicted man." The documentary illustrates the humility of both Darryl and his wife, the drive and determination of his supporters, and depicts the ongoing battle with the racism that underlies this case.


In April 2007, the book Long Time Coming was published, recounting Hunt's sixth grade teacher's (Jo Anne North Goetz) steadfast belief in Darryl's innocence. The book was written by author Leigh Somerville McMillan, who also writes for the Winston-Salem Journal.

In November 2011, the book "Making Justice Our Business: The Wrongful Conviction of Darryl Hunt and the Work of Faith" by Stephen B. Boyd (978-1-60899-966-8) was released from Wipf and Stock with an endorsement from Maya Angelou: "I recommend this book as an important read for every American citizen." The book chronicles the story of Hunt—his conviction, time in prison, exoneration, and the community that never lost faith in his innocence—as well as arguing for the importance of justice in a life of faith.


On February 19, 2007, the city of Winston-Salem settled with Hunt in his lawsuit against the city. Hunt was awarded a settlement of $1,650,000.[7] He died on March 13, 2016.[8]

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