Darryl Hunt's Fight for Freedom

Darryl Hunt spent 19 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. He and his attorney, Mark Rabil, talk to Farai Chideya about his fight for freedom and the upcoming HBO documentary that tells his story, The Trials of Darryl Hunt.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES. Even the criminal justice system goes astray sometimes. How quickly police officers, prosecutors and judges catch those errors can mean the difference between justice and tragedy.

In 1984, Darryl Hunt was sentenced to life in prison for raping and murdering Deborah Sykes of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He was just 19 years old, but he was also African-American and Sykes was white.

For years, Hunt's appeals failed even when a second jury learned that a witness who helped convict him was a Klansman. Ten years in the Hunt sentence, a DNA test failed to link him to either Sykes' rape or murder. Still, a Winston-Salem judge says he saw no reason for a new trial. Despite the efforts of local activists in the black community, Hunt languished in prison for 19 years. Then a one-in-a-million DNA match found Sykes' real killer.

Hunt's odyssey is recounted in a new documentary called "The Trials of Darryl Hunt." It premieres this Thursday on HBO.

(Soundbite of documentary, "The Trials of Darryl Hunt")

Unidentified Woman #1: It's sad. It's a sad situation. And I have nieces, nephews - you know, that could have been a relative of mine.

Unidentified Woman #2: Some of us have been speaking to this city about the problems in the police department for years. So we would hope that this city can understand (unintelligible) that we are meaning what were saying.

Unidentified Man: It's important that we…

CHIDEYA: I spoke earlier with Darryl Hunt and the attorney who stood by him for 19 years, Mark Rabil, who's white. Rabil admitted that when he was first assigned to defend Hunt, even he doubted his client's innocence.

Mr. MARK RABIL (Darryl Hunt's Attorney): I assumed, like everybody else, that the police had done a relatively decent job and had some reason to charge Darryl, so unfortunately, I would say that I started out with a presumption that he had something to do with it rather than a presumption of innocence. And it's very intimidating to have a murder case in which I knew that they were seeking the death penalty. And if the facts were true, it was a case that the death penalty was almost guaranteed, especially in 1984 in the South. I mean, you had a white woman raped and murdered by a black man. To me, I was afraid that it would be like a lynching.

CHIDEYA: Darryl, you were offered time served if you said you were guilty. Why didn't you just say you were guilty?

Mr. DARRYL HUNT (Wrongfully accused of rape and murder): I couldn't live with myself. I could not bring myself to say that I committed a crime that I didn't not commit. Even being in prison for something I didn't do, in my heart, I was at peace. The hardest part for me throughout making that decision was convincing the people around me that I could not take this deal. Do I miss all the years that I lost? Yes, and there's no way I could get those back. So I try not to focus on the loss, I just tried to focus on the future and whatever I have left. I try to cherish every moment I have left.

CHIDEYA: Mark, you have these two trials. You have the chance that Darryl turned down to say he was guilty to get out of prison. And then 10 years into him being in prison, DNA evidence seems to exonerate him, but he goes on to serve almost 10 more years. What was your feeling about the nature of the justice system or the nature of your representation of Darryl?

Mr. RABIL: Well, when I first found out from the lab that the DNA cleared Darryl, I felt like that was going to be the end of the case. I felt like there was not going to be any question about whether Darryl should be released. It just seemed so clear.

And then as we got closer to that hearing and the DA said they were going to fight it, I was still hopeful that the judge would do the right thing. In fact, I think I told Darryl the judge probably had no choice but to let him out to give him a new trial. And so when the judge ruled against us in November of 1994, it was devastating. I was about as angry as a person could be. I remember when I left the courthouse that day, slamming my fist on a steel door and went from there and ran about 10 miles just to, sort of, cool down so I could figure out where to go.

CHIDEYA: Darryl, how did you feel?

Mr. HUNT: I questioned my existence at that point and it wasn't until, actually I went back to prison. I was actually walking back in the prison gate. A friend of mine, who is younger than me said that he was happy that I was back. And at first it thought that was some kind of sick joke. And then he told me that his mother had passed and he was thinking about escaping or committing suicide or something. And for me that was my purpose for coming back because he said I was the only person that he could talk to.

Mr. RABIL: If all Darryl did was save that one life through this lost that would be great, but it's a whole lot more and there's and we could certainly talk about a lot of things that have come about as a result of Darryl's release. But to us it's a - there's a lot of divine intervention with all this.

CHIDEYA: There was a moment when the North Carolina Supreme Court agreed with Judge Morgan and both of you seemed to be at an emotional crossroads, you know, you were heartbroken…

Mr. RABIL: Right. Right.

CHIDEYA: And Darryl was too. Let's take a listen to that.

(Soundbite of film, "The Trials of Darryl Hunt")

Mr. RABIL: Darryl.

Mr. HUNT: Yes.

Mr. RABIL: This is Mark. Have you talk to Ben yet?

Mr. HUNT: No.

Mr. RABIL: Well, we lost 4-3.

(Soundbite of crying)

Mr. RABIL: It was - Justice Meyers read the opinion and we had Exum and Webb and Frye on the dissent. I'm really sorry, Darryl.

Mr. HUNT: Thank everybody for me and to (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of dial tone)

CHIDEYA: Mark, in that sequence we - Darryl just hangs up the phone. What did you think at that moment?

Mr. RABIL: You know, it was so awful. I think I remember sitting there in the conference room. We had Darryl on the speakerphone as you can see in the documentary, Larry was to my side. I tried not to think about how Darryl was feeling because that was just too awful. But I was thinking I'm sitting there, I'm a lawyer, I'm part of the system. How in the world can I go out and explain to people that this is the American system that there is any justice because at that moment, there was none in my mind. It was inexplicable and indefensible.

CHIDEYA: And, Darryl, you just hang up the phone there. It seems as if this is one moment where, although you've been, kind of, unshakable through many trials and tribulations, your faith may have been shaken. Was it?

Mr. HUNT: No because what actually happened. I had two officers standing on the side of me and they were laughing. It was hilarious to them that I had been turned down. And I guess they enjoyed seeing me hurt, I guess. They actually hang up the phone when I hesitated. And as I walk back to my cell, they told me also who's working in the cell block, who came up to me about - to get back to my bunk and told me that the captain and lieutenants called me and told me to watch you because you may kill yourself. And he said they was laughing about us. So that helped me stay stronger because I refuse to be degraded to that level.

CHIDEYA: So much of this case was about race. Ultimately, is this a better town and a better country as a result of all of the kind of the poison letting that occur during the 20 years of this case? Mark first, and then, Darryl.

Mr. RABIL: Well, first this story is absolutely a story about race and racism. And I say that from someone who grew up in North Carolina and I've lived there all of my life. And there's no way that you can extricate racism from Darryl's case from the very beginning as you said with the issues of cross racial identification, with the Klansman being the main witness against Darryl with the police officer, the lead detective telling Internal Affairs investigators that, to him, every young black male in Winston-Salem was a suspect.

I mean, you just go on and on but what this film has been able to do, in Darryl's case, has been able to do is expose that. And Winston-Salem, yes, is a much better place today because the people in power are aware of what happened. There is still racism there. There's still racism within me. But the best thing we can do is to be aware of it so that it can go away.

CHIDEYA: Darryl, do you feel that you helped other people take a journey and looking at themselves, looking at Winston-Salem, looking at justice?

Mr. HUNT: The years that I lost are really not lost because it can help one person and that it can change and make things better for one person.

CHIDEYA: Well, Darryl, I wish you all the best in enjoying your freedom. And, Mark, congratulations, I guess, belatedly on this case.

Mr. HUNT: Thank you.

Mr. RABIL: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Darryl Hunt was freed after spending 19 years in jail for a crime he did not commit. Mark Rabil was his attorney. "The Trials of Darryl Hunt" premiers this Thursday on HBO.

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