In episode 13 of Bow to Fate we discuss part two of the wrongful convictions of Darryl Hunt. Darryl was convicted of the rape and murder of Deborah Sykes on August 10th, 1984. He was also convicted for the murder of Arthur Wilson on September 17th, 1983. Both of these convictions are discussed in this episode. Darryl Hunt became the face of the racial injustice movement in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. If you enjoy this episode please visit our website bowtofate.com to stay up to date with current events and episodes.
Hello and thanks for listening to Bow to Fate- a podcast focusing on true crime with an emphasis on the flaws in our justice system. We left off last time with the incredible community support for Darryl as he enters the trial phase for the murder of Deborah Sykes. This is part two of the wrong convictions of Darryl Hunt so if you missed the last episode you may want to stop here and go back and listen to part one.
The trial began on May 28th, 1985 in Forsyth County Superior Court. Despite a large African American population, 11 of the 12 jurors that were sat were white. Tisdale had used his exemptions to excuse black jurors without cause. The defense had asked the judge to issue an order to stop Tisdale from doing so, but they were denied. It is discrimination to excuse a jurror solely for race, but it notoriously hard to prove.
Another witness had also come forward as well. Roger Weaver was the hotel manager at the Hyatt Hotel close to the scene of the crime. He stated that a black man entered the hotel the morning of the murder and made eye contact with him and asked to use the rest room. The man used the bathroom and shortly after Weaver entered and saw pink droplets in the sink and paper towels that seemed to have remnants of blood on them.
Detectives waited 8 months to show Roger Weaver a lineup, by which time he had already seen several news reports with Darryl Hunt’s photograph featured as the suspected murderer. It was not difficult for him to point out Darryl Hunt as the man he saw that morning. District attorney was concerned about his case. He tried to get a security guard to corroborate Roger Weaver’s account, but he was unsuccessful. The guard was unable to say that Darryl Hunt was the man that Weaver was speaking about.
Despite this Tisdale liked Weaver as a witness much more than his other choices. After doing some investigation he found that Thomas Murphy was a member of the Klu Klux Klan and he ingrained himself in this case over guilt of not stopping to help Deborah Sykes the day of the murder.
Don Tisdale also wasn’t happy with the lead detective, Jim Daulton. Daulton was a motorcycle cop and had only been promoted to detective 2 years prior, all of his cases up to this point related to juveniles, he had never worked a murder case before. The fact that Daulton teamed up with Thomas Murphy bothered Tisdale.
His star witness also had problems, Johnny Gray’s stories just did not make sense. Gray, Hunt, and Mitchell were all regulars at the drink houses around Winston-Salem, the fact that Gray did not identify Darryl Hunt until so long after the fact bothered Tisdale and the fact that Johnny Gray initially pointed the finger at Terry Thomas made him less reliable.
Despite his worries District Attorney Donald Tisdale did decided to move forward with the case he had. He presented his witnesses and he was right with Roger Weaver. His confidence on the stand played a big role in swaying the jury. The case relied only on witnesses, none of the physical evidence was a match for Darryl Hunt. The prosecution got over this by presenting the theory that there were two assailants, but Darryl Hunt ultimately killed Deborah Sykes. The police never searched for the second assailant, but they assumed it was either Sammy Mitchell or their own star eye-witness, Johnny Gray.
Margaret Crawford, had told the defense team and their investigators that she would recant her previous statements if called to the stand, and she did just that. Crawford was 14 years old and mentally ill and seeking treatment. Don Tisdale was able to get her statement into evidence by reading the statement and then having her deny it on the stand. It was a tense showdown.
When it was the defense’s turn, Mark Rabil & Gordon Jenkins called Cynthis McKey to the stand. She testified just as she had always said that Darryl Hunt and Sammy Mitchell had stayed at her home the night before the murder and they were there the next day when the murder occured so they could not be involved. Sammy Mitchell also testified for his friend confirming that they had been with McKey and not involved in any way in the murder.
Darryl Hunt took the stand in his own defense, he denied any involvement in the murder. The DA pushed him on the statement he had previously made to police about being with Margaret Crawford the night of August 9th, but he reiterated that when he pled guilty to that offence he was simply stating that he had had relations with Crawford he was not focused on the date. This allowed the prosecution to introduce Hunt’s previous arrest for sex with a minor, but Hunt continued to proclaim his innocence.
Here is Hunt on the stand at his trial answering questions from his attorney Mark Rabil:
-06. D.H. at trial- not angry at police they made mistake- Tof DH
The jury reached its verdict on Friday, June 14, 1985, after three days of deliberations. Hunt’s supporters were exasperated. They were angry with the one black juror on the panel for not fighting for Hunt, but ultimately the jury found Darryl Hunt guilty of first-degree murder.
The next phase would be the sentencing phase. Here is Darryl Hunt from the documentary Trials’ of Darryl Hunt.
-07. DH first trial sentencing phase T of DH
Don Tisdale the district attorney had asked for the death penalty, but there were too many issues lingering on the jurors minds. Ultimately they gave Darryl life in prison. Reflecting on the case now, Don Tisdale knew that the day the verdict was rendered was also the day his career as the district attorney was over as well. He said this in the documentary Trials’ of Darryl Hunt
08. Don Tisdale- After verdict 1st trial TofDH
His words seem indifferent to the turmoil happening in his city. The case tore the community in two directly down race lines. Despite his words he was not wrong, he would not be re-elected as the district attorney and this case was far from over.
After the case ended in the hallway of the courthouse Thomas Murphy, one of the state’s witnesses ran into Johnny Gray, the 911 caller. Murphy told the district attorney he was with that Johnny Gray was the second man he saw with Darryl Hunt the morning of the murder.
Hunt’s supporters did not let up, the Darryl Hunt Defense Fund, was working harder than ever to right what they saw as an injustice in their community. At the same time the police department was under pressure, the city manager and internal affairs conducted investigations into the misgivings of Darryl Hunt’s case. Detective Jim Daulton was demoted to a dispatch position, two supervisors were suspended and the Chief of Police received a formal reprimand. There were calls for reform and the police department was searching for a way to confirm their suspicions of Darryl Hunt.
In the spring of 1986, Winston-Salem police had a man named Merrit Drayton in custody in connection with his girlfriend’s death. Word came down the line that he wanted to talk to detectives about an old murder involving Sammy Mitchell and Darryl Hunt.
Arthur Wilson was 57 years old when he died outside a drink house in September of 1983. Police spoke with witnesses across the street in a car who said that they saw three men beating and robbing a man, but they were unable to identify any suspects. Arthur Wilson was a black man found outside a drink house in the poorest part of Winston-Salem his death barely made the news. There was a cusory investigation, but no witnesses were able to definitively say they saw anything, when the coroners report came back that his death could have easily been from an accidental fall down the drink house steps or a murder the case was closed inactive and no one thought of it any longer. That was until the day Merrit Drayton mentioned the names Sammy Mitchell and Darryl Hunt.
Drayton claimed that he, Mitchell, and Hunt were all in the drink house that night with Arthur Wilson. Wilson was waving around a wad of cash and it was decided that they were going to rob him. Drayton told police that they followed Wilson out of the drink house, where Sammy Mitchell beat him to death with an ax handle. The cherry on top was that Drayton still had the ax handle at his girlfriend’s home. Drayton also gave police a list of potential witnesses. These were the same people police spoke to in 1983, however this time they confirmed that they had seen Sammy Mitchell, Darryl Hunt, and Merrit Drayton in the drink house that night. The district attorney moved forward with charges. Darryl Hunt did not testify at this trial, but he did confirm that he was drinking with Sammy and his cousin that night at the drink house. Hunt said that he and his cousin left before 11pm that night, well before the murder. Sammy Mitchell stayed behind.
Sammy Mitchell was convicted in October of 1986 for the Murder of Sammy Mitchell and sentenced to 50 years in prison, his conviction relied heavily on the testimony of Merrit Drayton. Drayton has since recanted that statement, however Sammy Mitchell still remains in prison to this day.
Darryl Hunt was tried next, one year later in October of 1987 he was convicted for the murder of Arthur Wilson and sentenced to 40 years in prison. To Hunt supporters this conviction was just further proof that the police would do anything to keep Hunt in prison even if it meant creating more false charges. Winston-Salem law enforcement, however felt like this conviction fully vindicated them for any wrong-doing in the Deborah Sykes case.
Larry Little and the Darryl Hunt Defense Fund became more invigorated and their efforts to free Darryl Hunt increased. They reached out to renowned civil rights attorney, James Ferguson, and appellate attorney specialist, Ben Dowling-Sendor to join the team. Mark Rabil and Gordon Jenkins remained as well. Everyone was committed to getting Darryl out of jail. They began to file appeals in the two cases. Here is James Ferguson talking in the Trials of Darryl Hunt documentary about the Deborah Sykes’ case.
09. James Ferguson- DH 2nd attorney Crawford statement TofDH
In May of 1989 the North Carolina Supreme Court overturned the Sykes conviction, because of the trial testimony on Margaret Crawford. The district attorney had introduced the police statements as evidence despite the fact that she had recanted them.
Six months later they received more good news, the court had overturned the Arthur Wilson conviction because the judge had give the jury bad instructions regarding the law, this meant that Darryl Hunt would be eligible for parole if the state decided to re-prosecute the cases.
Larry Little stepped up to the plate in a big way in November of 1989 and put his house up as collateral to meet Darryl’s $50,000 bail. For the first time in five years Darryl Hunt was allowed to breathe free air.
The new District Attorney, Warren Sparrow, met with Darryl Hunt and his defense team and offered what some would call the deal of the century. They offered that Hunt would be released with time served if he plead guilty to both murders in open court. Darryl met with his attorneys and his supporters and almost everyone was in agreement that he should take the deal. No one thought that Darryl Hunt would receive a fair trial, and it would mean that Darryl could have his life back. Ultimately the decision was Hunt’s though and he would not plead guilty to something he did not do so Warren Sparrow re-tried the case of Arthur Wilson. It ended in defeat for the prosecution when the jury returned a verdict of not guilty, but that verdict did not give Darryl Hunt hope, too much had happened to him and by this point he expected the worst.
Warren Sparrow declined to prosecute the Deborah Sykes murder case, he cited potential conflicts of interest in that some of his assistants had previously worked on Darryl Hunt’s defense team. The state of North Carolina had to assign a special prosecutor to look at the case. Dean Bowman was eventually assigned. Here is Dean from the documentary Trials’ of Darryl Hunt
10. Dean Bowman-2nd trial special prosecutor TofDH
James Ferguson, Hunt’s attorney, had made a request to move the trial out of Forsey County. He thought getting away from all the emotion surrounding the case would be good for them, he knew it was a risky venture, but took the gamble hoping that he could finally seat an impartial jury. The jury would now be held in Catawba County, it was an hour outside Winston-Salem and the population was predominately white. Jefferson’s gamble had not paid off.
Only four of the one hundred people called for jury duty were African American and when selection was over they had 12 jurors, 11 white and one hispanic. Hunt’s supporters were sure that this was the beginning of the end.
The second trial began in September 1990, Dean Bowman’s case again had no physical evidence, but he had shored up some of the holes with two jailhouse snitches. Jesse Moore, a white supremacists, told the jury Hunt had confessed to the crime to him. Hunt’s defense team called another inmate who supposedly witnessed this confession and he said that it never happened. Donald Haigy was the second snitch, he told the jury the same thing, that Hunt had confessed to him. This time the defense team called his Haigy’s brother who in no uncertain terms told the jury his brother was a liar.
In addition to the witnesses in the first trial, Bowman also called Debra Davis who said she saw both Hunt and Mitchell outside the Crystal Towers near the murder scene on the mornig of the murder and Ed Reese who stated that he saw Sammy Mitchell near the murder scene that morning. Since Darryl had always said he was with Sammy Mitchell on the day of the murder the prosecution thought that if Mitchell was seen near where the murder took place then Hunt was with him.
The prosecution also called Kevey Coleman to the stand as well. Coleman stated that on the morning of the murder he was walking to work and saw two men that resembled Hunt and Mitchell escorting a white woman near park. Coleman was not wearing his contacts though and was not 100% certain that the men he saw were Mitchell and Hunt just that they resembled them.
The strategy for the defense was just to point out all the flaws in the prosecution’s case. Darryl Hunt did not testify this time and they had witnesses to dispute or explain why each and every witness might not be telling the truth. James Ferguson pointed out several times that they had no evidence and that the witnesses were faulty. The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation had done an extensive investigation of the Deborah Sykes murder after the trial in 1986. This information was not give to the defense and they were only given portions of reports the day the prosecution presented the evidence. Ferguson and Rabil argued that this was a clear Brady violation, but the judge disagreed.
The defense team was unable to locate many of the witnesses that they intended to call. They eventually found witnesses to talk about Johnny Gray’s initial misidentification of Terry Thomas and William Hooper who stated that he saw two black men with Deborah Sykes the morning of the murder, but neither of those men were Darryl Hunt.
The defense took two days for their closing arguments, they produced an analytical intellectual argument, James Ferguson pointed to the lack of evidence and the fact that the state’s witnesses had either been coerced or influenced by the police.
Dean Bowman took a much gentler approach, he knew that his case was weak on facts so focused instead on emotions. He walked the jury through the last hours of Deborah Sykes’ life. He laid out her bloody clothing for the jury to look at while he gave his closing. His words struck the hearts of jurors.
He asked “And what was she thinking when this man right over here, this Darryl Eugene Hunt, what was she thinking when he pinned her down to the ground, held her arms up and he slashed her and he slashed her and he slashed her and he slashed her some more, just like he was butchering some animal?”
“Finally, what was Deborah Sykes thinking when this man right over here (pointing at Hunt), this real person Deborah Sykes, what was she thinking when he spread those legs apart and he crawled down inside her and he raped and ravaged her and deposited some thick yellow sickening fluid in her body?”
“What hope did Deborah Sykes cling to then? Where was the judge and where was the jury? When life’s blood ran on the grass?”
With tears in their eyes the jury walked into the deliberation room.
11. News Report- DH 2nd trial verdict
Darryl Hunt had been out on bail for the last 11 months and now he was headed back facing a life sentence again.
The appeals began again. They started with the witnesses that they had spoken to before, but disappeared before the second trial began. They learned that most if not all of their witnesses had been threatened or intimidated by the police department not to participate in the trial. Ben Dowling-Sendor brought this in front of a judge, the prosecutors again used pieces of the SBI report to dispute the defenses claims. When Darryl’s defense team objected again to the use of the SBI report that they were not given access to this time the appellate judge agreed. While he denied their motion for a new trial based on the emotional closing of the special prosecutor, Dean Bowman, and the intimidation of their witnesses, they were given full access to the SBI report and other materials that the prosecution had, but had not given to police.
In the early 90’s DNA was just dipping its toe into the criminal justice system. The science was there and it had finally been perfected to compare DNA from even degraded samples. When James Ferguson & Mark Rabil asked the prosecutor’s office about the potential of testing the DNA found at the Sykes murder scene they were told that the DNA was too degraded to test. When they received the SBI report and other materials they learned that the prosecution knew before the second trial began that the DNA could be tested, but they refused to do so.
When Darryl Hunt’s defense team spoke with Darryl about having his DNA tested to exclude him as the rapist, he agreed without hesitation. They explained to him that if he had anything to do with the murder his DNA would surely be present, Hunt knew that and he wanted the test done. The problem was the state of North Carolina did not and they actively fought against testing the sample. By this time Thomas Keith was the new District Attorney for Forsey County and he assigned ADA Eric Saunders to take over the case. In the documentary the Trials’ of Darryl Hunt we can hear Saunders arguing with James Ferguson before a judge against testing the sample.
-12. Eric Saunders-DA &James Ferguson arguing after 2nd trial to test DNA TofDH
Why the state was arguing against having the DNA tested we will never know, maybe they understood how weak their case was and feared the repercussions of finding out the truth. But Dean Bowman in his emotional closing of the second trial all but confirmed that they believed that Darryl Hunt was the rapist and Johnny Gray their star witness said that he saw Darryl Hunt on top of Sykes and then saw him running away pulling up his pants so it seemed ridiculous to now argue that Darryl was not the rapist but he was still culpable. In a stroke of luck for Darryl Hunt the judge agreed and requested that the state perform the DNA test immediately.
The lab finished the testing in October of 1994. They confirmed their tests again and released the results. They were definitive. Darryl Hunt’s DNA was not found on Deborah Sykes, he did not rape her on the morning of August 10th, 1984.
Darryl Hunt and his supporters celebrated. His attorney’s went to see him in jail, it was filmed for the Trials’ of Darryl Hunt:
-13. DH in jail after DNA clears I have to give back T of DH
Their confidence was booming. Their appearance in front of the judge was a month away and they were all certain that Darryl would at a minimum be given a new trial and even then they felt that the DA no longer had enough to carry on with the prosecution of this case.
The ADA Eric Saunders was flabbergasted. He had the DNA tested against that of Sammy Mitchell, Johnny Gray, and finally Doug Sykes, in case it was leftover from the night prior. All came back negative. Saunders started to argue that maybe the DNA had been contaminated. If it was not one of their three main suspects it had to be contaminated or wrong, they could not have been this far off on the investigation
Here is Erick Saunders talking about the DNA results in the documentary the Trials’ of Darryl Hunt.
14. DA Eric Saunders- DNA results don’t make sense TofDH
Saunders was positive that Darryl Hunt played a roll in the murder of Deborah Sykes, he stated that he may have even raped her too and just not ejaculated. He vehemently opposed the release of Darryl Hunt based on the DNA evidence. It was possible their was another participant in the crime that none of the witnesses could identify. Just because Darryl Hunt’s DNA was not present did not mean he was to culpable for the murder.
Everyone grew more and more excited as the court date approached they felt as if Darryl would soon be exonerated and the DA’s office was spiraling arguing against science.
It was nearing the end of 1994 when all parties sat again in front of a judge awaiting a ruling on the fate of Darryl Hunt. Judge Melzer Morgan of Forsyth Superior Court read his 11 page ruling to the court.
-15. Judge denies new trial based on DNA TofDH
In another blow to Darryl Hunt and all his supporters throughout the community, Judge Morgan decided that the DNA would not change the outcome of the case. I would argue that it would, it most certainly would, the entire theory of the crime would change and why hadn’t the police searched to find the other suspect that they are now proclaiming exists with such conviction. Is the community not afraid that another murderer is running free?
Darryl Hunt has been faced with hurdle after hurdle and every step of the way he is faced with a justice system that is determined to keep him behind bars for a crime he denies committing. With DNA being such a huge part of criminal investigations today it is hard to imagine a time when they would consider DNA not relevant to a defendant’s guilt or innocence. Darryl Hunt’s supporters remained strong and his attorney’s refused to give up. They held a press conference after Judge Morgan issued his ruling
16. BDS & JF Press conference before filing supreme court for release after DNA TofDH
They took their fight to the supreme court of North Carolina. They knew it was a long shot, but felt that the DNA not matching Darryl Hunt certainly would have swayed the jury. It was close but ultimately in a 4-3 decision the Supreme Court of North Carolina sided with Judge Morgan and upheld the conviction, effectively denying the request for a new trial.
Years would go by, there was talk of taking the case to the United States Supreme Court. Darryl’s attorney, Mark Rabil, had been with him from the very start and he was not about to give up on him now when he needed him most.
One day in 2003 Mark Rabil wanted to run the DNA through the entire database, he was working off a long shot of matching the suspect on a cold hit. They had tested 5 potential suspects so far and none were matches, but Mark was desperate, he knew the only way to get Darryl out of prison would be to find the real murderer. So he set about doing the impossible. He got a judge to agree that the state should run the DNA through the entire network, and then he followed up with the lab constantly until one day in December of 2003, he received a phone call. The DNA had come back with a match.
The DNA found inside Deborah Sykes belonged to Willard Brown. The man Regina had pointed to as her rapist in 1985. The man that the police had convinced her not to prosecute. The man that the state said was in jail at the time of Deborah Sykes’ death. As it turned out Willard Brown had been in jail but the projected release date on his records was September 1984, if the police had followed up at all they would have found that he was actually released in June of 1984. When an investigation took place later it was found that the evidence from Regina’s attack was destroyed without any testing. They had blood, semen, and the knife the attacker had used to subdue and stab her.
Darryl Hunt’s supporters and friends erupted with joy at finding the actual murderer of Deborah Sykes. They petitioned the DA for the immediate release of Darryl Hunt and asked that they apologize to him for taking his life away.
When police brought Willard Brown in for questioning, he confessed to both the rape and murder of Deborah Sykes. He offered his apologies to the family of Sykes and to Sammy Mitchell and Darryl Hunt for staying silent for so long.
Darryl Hunt was released on Christmas of 2003 with a hearing scheduled for February 6th, 2004. Hunt had so much trauma from his past experiences with the justice system he did not know what to expect from the hearing. He hoped that he would be set free, but experience told him that he should be concerned.
On February 6th, 2003 he entered the courtroom again.
17. Exoneration Hearing TofDH
Darryl Hunt was a free man, he had spent 19 years of his life behind bars for a crime he did not commit. His caring nature rubbed off on everyone he came in contact with. In February of 2007 Winston-Salem settled with Darryl for the wrongful conviction and awarded him 1.65 million dollars, he used this money to support his efforts to help other people that had been wrongfully convicted or those that were recently released from prison to get back on their feet.
Darryl Hunt’s case sparked outrage and reform within the justice system of Winston-Salem, the people of Winston-Salem came together and reviewed the case looking at where police went wrong. The city issued a formal apology to Darryl. He never left Winston-Salem despite living amongst those that so strongly believed him to be a murder. He wanted to pay forward all the kindness the community had done for him. When Darryl was arrested he did not have any family to support him, he had the members of the community who stood behind him and believed in him.
Larry Little went to law school to become a lawyer to support Darryl’s cause, in the time that Darryl was locked away Larry became a lawyer, but Hunt’s case so disillusioned him to the justice system that he began to teach at the local college. Darryl often spoke for Larry’s class, he wanted others to know his story. His wish was that no one would ever be forced to endure what he had. When Darryl spoke of Willard Brown, he only said that he was entitled to a fair trial and he hoped that he got one.
Unfortunately Darryl’s time in prison left him with significant post traumatic stress. On March 13, 2016 Darryl Hunt committed suicide and this world lost a beautiful, caring individual. Those who remember Darryl remember his positive outlook on life, and though ultimately depression got the best of him, he always had a smile for anyone who needed one.
If you would like to learn more about Darryl’s cases I would highly recommend the documentary the Trials’ of Darryl Hunt or the newspaper articles written by investigative journalist, Phoebe Zerwick, she wrote an eight part series that was instrumental in bringing attention to Darryl’s case.
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