Eleven of 12 jurors wanted to execute Darryl Hunt, but one refused to waver. Only because of that single juror was Hunt spared being executed for a rape and murder he did not commit. He was not spared, however, from spending 19 years in prison for the crime — 10 of those after DNA evidence showed that he was not the culprit.
Quick Facts: Darryl Hunt
- Race: African American
- County: Forsyth County
- Date of Crime: August 10, 1984
- Victim: Deborah Sykes, White, Age 25
- Conviction Date: June 14, 1985
- Exoneration Date: February 6, 2004
- Years incarcerated: 18
- Years on death row: 0
- Real Perpetrator Found: Yes
- Errors: Hunt’s arrest, trial, and conviction were based heavily on eyewitness misidentification, the testimony of a witness who later recanted, and the testimony of jailhouse informants. He was tried before an all-white jury and exonerated after DNA found on the victim’s body matched another man
“They had virtually no evidence against me; I had a team of lawyers and supporters who worked on my case; I had DNA results in my favor — and it still took them almost 20 years to admit I was innocent,” Hunt says. “A system that can perpetrate an injustice like this has no business deciding life and death. If I had gotten a death sentence, there’s no doubt in my mind, I would have been executed.”
Hunt was convicted of the 1984 murder of Deborah Sykes, a 25-year-old newspaper copy editor who was raped and stabbed 16 times while on her way to work at The Sentinel in Winston-Salem. The crime against an innocent young white woman sparked outrage in the community, and 19-year-old Hunt was quickly arrested.
The only evidence tying Hunt to the crime was the testimony of witnesses who said they saw Hunt with Sykes before the crime, or saw him at a hotel afterward disposing of bloody towels. Their identification of Hunt was shaky at best. Hunt testified that he did not know Sykes and had no involvement with the crime.
In 1989, Hunt’s conviction was overturned on appeal because prosecutors had relied on the statements of one witness who had later recanted. Prosecutors offered Hunt a deal. He could be freed by pleading guilty to the murder and accepting a sentence of the five years he had already served. He refused to admit to a crime he did not commit. Hunt was retried for murder, and again sentenced to life imprisonment.
In 1994, scientific advances allowed for DNA testing of evidence from the crime scene. The testing revealed that the DNA of the rapist did not match Hunt’s. In a hearing about the newly discovered scientific evidence, the state changed its story, now insisting that there was more than one assailant, and that Hunt still could have killed Sykes. The judge ruled in the prosecution’s favor, and Hunt remained in prison.
Over nearly two decades, Hunt’s lawyers worked tirelessly on his case. More than 35 state and federal judges reviewed Hunt’s case. Two governors were asked to consider clemency. By 2003, all of Hunt’s appeals had been rejected and both governors had refused to act. Had Hunt been sentenced to death, he likely would have been executed.
In December 2003, the Winston-Salem Journal published an eight-part series on the case. Shortly after the series, the State Bureau of Investigation took the long-overdue step of running the DNA from the crime scene against state and federal databases of convicted felons. A match was found, and a man who had been identified in a similar rape, which occurred only a few months after Sykes’ murder, was arrested.
That man confessed to being the sole perpetrator of the crime and apologized to Hunt and the victim’s family for what he had put them through. The Forsyth County District Attorney, who for years had insisted Hunt was guilty and fought to keep him in prison, came forward and said publicly that he believed Hunt was innocent.
Hunt was exonerated in February 2004, and in April of that year received a pardon of innocence from the governor. Hunt was a tireless advocate for criminal justice reform until his death in March 2016.