Away With . . .
New York Times Op-Ed
January 5, 2004
N.C. - Two days before Christmas - after nearly two decades
of bungling and outrageous misbehavior - the police finally
arrested the right man for the rape and murder of a woman in
even after a DNA match and a credible confession showed conclusively
that the wrong man had been locked up for the better part of
19 years, law enforcement authorities
remained reluctant to let him go.I suppose times have changed.
Half a century ago, Darryl
Hunt might have been lynched. Instead, he was left to rot in
a cell, wrongfully incarcerated, for half his life.
Sykes was a 25-year-old white woman who was beaten, raped and
stabbed to death by a black man on the morning of Aug. 10, 1984.
The case was a local sensation, an
accelerant in a racial atmosphere that was fiery in the best
Hunt, 19 at the time, was caught in a search that can fairly
be categorized as "any black man will do." Patently
unreliable testimony got him convicted of murder and
sentenced to life in prison. And after procedural problems caused
the first conviction to be thrown out, he was tried and convicted
Hunt insisted from the beginning that he was innocent. He and
his attorney, Mark Rabil, who is white, and several dedicated
supporters in the black community, including a
former city alderman named Larry Little, spent many long disheartening
years fighting a hateful, racist system that was never interested
in dispensing justice or finding the
after DNA tests of semen collected from Ms. Sykes's body failed
to show any link to Mr. Hunt or to any of the alleged accomplices
fantasized by prosecutors over the
years, the courts would not intervene.
last year an extraordinary sequence of events forced the truth
into the open. In response to motions by Mr. Hunt's lawyers,
a judge ordered the state to compare the
DNA evidence with genetic profiles of state prisoners compiled
in a DNA database. In November The Winston-Salem Journal started
an eight-part series that detailed the
mistakes, the unreliable witnesses, the official misconduct,
the DNA evidence and many other aspects of the case.
pressure growing, a new generation of investigators ran a broad
check of the DNA. Lo and behold, the check led them to a man
named Willard Brown whose DNA matched that of semen taken from
Ms. Sykes. On Dec. 23 Mr. Brown was arrested and charged with
kidnapping, rape, armed robbery and murder.
Feb. 2, 1985, less than six months after the attack on Ms. Sykes,
another woman was abducted, raped and, like Ms. Sykes, repeatedly
stabbed. The abduction occurred just a
couple of blocks from the spot where Ms. Sykes was attacked.
second woman survived and identified Willard Brown as her attacker.
But for reasons that are not at all clear, he was never prosecuted.
Brown has confessed to the rape and murder of Ms. Sykes. He
said he acted alone and, according to court papers, he expressed
remorse for the crime and for the many years Mr. Hunt spent
prosecutors were still reluctant to do the right thing by Mr.
Hunt. They continued to search for a way to link him to the
that point a number of prominent white voices were raised, saying
essentially that enough was enough. Several white ministers
held a press conference to express their
dismay at the way the case had been handled.
Christmas Eve a Superior Court judge ordered the release of
Mr. Hunt on an unsecured $250,000 bond pending a hearing in
February. His lawyers hope that prosecutors will agree at that
point to have his murder conviction vacated.
are many terrible things about this case. The awful attacks
on at least two women. The years lost to Mr. Hunt in prison.
And the fact that the relentlessly bad behavior
of the law enforcement authorities - the use of unreliable witnesses,
the illegal withholding of exculpatory material, the refusal
to acknowledge clear evidence of innocence - is so ordinary.
This sort of thing goes on all the time.
Hunt told me he was not bitter, but he did think someone should
be held accountable for what happened to him. "If people
feel they can get away with anything," he said, "then
you will have other Darryl Hunts, from now until the end of