In December 2003, Willard E. Brown confessed to the 1984 rape and stabbing death of Deborah Sykes after DNA testing linked him to the crime. His confession led to the release of Darryl Hunt, who had served about 18 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. Cromer dismissed the case against Hunt "with prejudice," meaning he can never be tried in the murder again. Over the course of its inquiry from 2005-2007, a citizens committee revealed mistakes made by law-enforcement officers in the handling of the Sykes case and three other rape cases that occurred in the same time frame. In February 2007, their report was released and the city issued a formal apology to Darryl Hunt.

Council Agrees to Pay $1.65 Million to Hunt

Officers fell short of standards, Joines says

By Bertrand M. Gutierrez and Dan Galindo (Tuesday, February 20, 2007)

The Hunt case has remained racially divisive, as his supporters accused police and prosecutors of framing a black man for the murder of a white woman. One of the glaring questions that remained is whether police officials systematically fixed the case to get Hunt convicted.

It didn't have to be that way for Darryl Hunt.

Had witnesses not identified the wrong man; had police connected more dots; had police not destroyed evidence - maybe Hunt could have been spared time in prison for the murder of Deborah Sykes. Those are some of the key findings in a 9,000-page report on how Hunt was wrongfully imprisoned for Sykes' murder.

Sykes was raped and stabbed to death in August 1984 by Willard Brown, who was released from prison just months before the attack. But police wouldn't identify him as the killer until late 2003. By the time Brown confessed in 2004, Hunt had spent more than 18 years in prison.

For that, the Winston-Salem City Council agreed last night to pay Hunt $1.65 million, tax-exempt, in restitution. For that, the city council apologized.

Mayor Allen Joines said in a press release that an internal investigation revealed "actions of city officers and employees and others which fall far short of the standards that the city espouses. For such actions ... the city expresses its sincere regret, extending its pro-found and sincere apology to Darryl Hunt for all that he has endured and suffered in this matter."

Hunt was at a screening of The Trials of Darryl Hunt, a documentary about his case, which was shown at Wake Forest University last night. He sat in a waiting room in the basement of Wingate Hall as the movie played, spending part of the time watching the live broadcast of the city-council meeting on public-access television.

"Hopefully this can be a healing process for myself and the city.... For me and for everybody on my side, this is it," Hunt said. "The apology, I appreciated, but I still think the apology needs to go Mrs. Sykes and her family, because I'm still living."

The Hunt case has remained racially divisive, as his supporters accused police and prosecutors of framing a black man for the murder of a white woman. One of the glaring questions that remained is whether police officials systematically fixed the case to get Hunt convicted.

An answer to that question may never be known, even after a panel of volunteers investigated for more than a year what went wrong in the case. The panel, called the Sykes Administrative Review Committee, put their findings into the report, which includes interviews with former police officials and other witnesses related to the case.

The report, made public last night, makes no explicit statement that Hunt was framed. It wasn't possible to come to a definitive conclusion on that, City Manager Lee Garrity said last week, because the panel was hamstrung in its ability to talk to people. It had no subpoena power and therefore had to rely on people volunteering to talk about the case.

But the Sykes report does spell out some of the areas where the police investigation went wrong:

  • By late November 1984, two months after Hunt was arrested, probable cause to believe that he committed the rape and murder no longer existed.

  • Once detectives knew that the blood of Hunt and his friend, Sammy Mitchell, did not match the blood type of the rapist, they conducted little or no investigation to find the rapist.

  • By the spring of 1986, detectives should have connected the Sykes case and a Feb. 2, 1985, rape case and connected Willard Brown's blood evidence with that from the Sykes case.

  • Detectives should have more thoroughly investigated two other rapes, one in June 1984 and the other on New Year's Day 1985, to determine if the same rapist committed both crimes and whether that rapist was Sykes' attacker.

Hunt could have sued the city and the police officers involved in the case. He had three years from the day he was exonerated, on Feb. 6, 2004. But he let that deadline pass as negotiations with the city continued.

By settling the case, the city avoids having to relive the details in court. Hunt, who initially asked for $5 million, would have had to prove that the police intentionally ignored, withheld or fabricated evidence had he sued.

The stakes are high in such cases. Some lawsuits have resulted in cities paying out more than $1 million for each year of wrongful imprisonment. Legal experts say that the cases are difficult to win and expensive for a city to defend. And a suit would have kept Hunt's case in the spotlight.

In 2004, the state paid Hunt $358,545 under a state law that provides $20,000 for every year of wrongful imprisonment. Hunt now runs the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice, a group that helps find training, jobs and housing for inmates returning to the community.

Police Chief Pat Norris, who was at the meeting, said that cases are investigated differently today.

"There have been things that have already been put in place even before I got here," she said. "Things that were learned. We work together as a unit now as opposed to as individuals."

Joines said that the settlement will help end the city's ordeal with the Sykes case.

"I think this brings closure to this very unfortunate blemish on the city's record. I hope it will bring closure for Mr. Hunt, and I think it denotes a clear beginning of changes for our police department. I feel very comfortable in saying that such a situation will not happen in the future," Joines said.

Originally appeared in Winston-Salem Journal.

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