Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

In Break-Thru Films gripping and terrifying documentary, at least from where I’m standing, one of the characters in the film indicates that in the pursuit to free Darryl Hunt who we would learn was unjustly charged, prosecuted and imprisoned on a rape and murder charge, they were trying to use facts and evidence to counter racism. Racism, as he would say, is illogical unreasonable and emotional and in my opinion never have truer words been spoken. There are a lot of good reasons to dislike somebody though one would think that disliking somebody for something they can’t control is just plain silly. Imagine disliking people because they are tall. Why not? I mean tall people stand closer to the sun and get all the get the good rays before they come to us and we know for certain that tall people get first dibs on all the good professional basketball jobs. Sure that seems silly but so does disliking somebody because of the color of their skin. But if what happened to Darryl Hunt was only as simple as racism it would probably be easier to understand, but his plight was caused by a combination of things that not only included racism, but also gross incompetence by the Winston-Salem police department, negligence, and pure ignorance which led to this particular travesty of justice. Not only to Darryl Hunt but more importantly to the woman who was murdered that day in 1984, Deborah Sykes, whose crime, for all intent and purposes, went unsolved for twenty years.

When Newspaper Editor Deborah Sykes was found raped and murdered in a Winston Salem park, the police department was motivated to solve this horrible crime quickly and through a bit of a suspect tip they were led to Darryl Hunt. Hunt was 19 at the time and had a minor criminal record, nothing that would indicate he was capable of such a heinous crime, but these types of criminals have to start somewhere I suppose. Though the prosecutions case was sketchy a best, considering there was no physical evidence,

no direct eyewitnesses and the testimony of an avowed Klansmen, though I should point that this doesn’t necessarily make the man a liar. They also procured the recanted testimony of a teenaged drug addicted prostitute, it took two hours for the jury to find Hunt guilty.

An outraged community over the next few years would raise money and push for a new trial for Hunt and ten years post, they would get one. The D.A even offered Hunt a deal to plead to second degree murder and be released on time served, which despite the urgings of friends and his council, Hunt refused. That particular situation was hard for me to wrap my simple mind around, first because considering the nature of the crime, and assuming this man to be guilty, there is no way any self respecting District Attorney should be making deals with a person, who for lack of a better word, is a monster. Secondly, I too would have encouraged Hunt to take the deal, especially considering he seemed to know the outcome of the second trial before hand.

Hunts lead attorney had always maintained that the way Hunt would be freed, no matter what evidence they dug up, would be to find Deborah Sykes real killer. This would include the eventual iron clad DNA evidence which eliminated Hunt as the rapist. Twenty years later they would find the killer, rather easily in fact once a few simple facts of some previous cases were released to them. It still wasn’t over for Hunt, but eventually, nineteen years after he was convicted, the crime was washed away from his record though there are some who still believe he is someway connected to this crime.

Directors Ricki Stein and Anne Sundberg followed this case for ten years pretty relentlessly and they presented a very thorough and gripping view of the events that led to Hunts eventual acquittal. Most of the information was one-sided however, of little fault to the filmmakers as the majority of the principles in the Salem-Winston police department declined to speak with them. It’s far too simplistic to view what happened to Darryl Hunt as merely racism, especially considering the fact a Black man did commit this crime. The shame is that the police department and District Attorney’s office seemed to be of the mindset that ‘any old Black man’ will do. The initial problem is just plain lazy and sloppy police work and then what looks to be a concerted effort to cover up and support this lazy sloppy police work. Who exactly does this mindset serve? Sure you got some Black guy off the street, but there’s a raping murderer was still floating quite freely around out there, still breaking laws.

Despite the fact it appears that Darryl Hunt had nothing to do with this crime, Deborah Sykes mother in court voiced her belief that he did and I even understand that, and again, the blame falls with the Salem Police department. For twenty years this woman has been told, and that courts had supported that Hunt raped and murdered her daughter. For twenty years she has built an unfettered hatred of a person who has essentially destroyed her life. Then one day you tell her all of that invested emotion was wasted. We found somebody new for you to hate. If only it were that simple. The law enforcement officials of Salem Winston failed everybody in the community, Blacks and whites alike.

‘The Trials of Darryl Hunt’ is a finely crafted, powerful and thought provoking documentary that is the true definition of must see television.

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