Winston Salem Journal: Opinion: The presumption of innocence

On Dec. 21, 2003, Willard Brown ended a tragic episode in our community’s history by admitting to the police that he raped and murdered Deborah Sykes in August 1984. He apologized to Sykes’ family and to Darryl Hunt, admitting that Hunt had nothing to do with it.

Since Hunt’s exoneration in February 2004, the Journal has published more than a few letters and had reader responses posted to its website that express an unfortunate sentiment: If Hunt didn’t do this, he did other things in the past or would do things in the future for which he probably deserved to go to prison, keeping our streets safer.”

I might well have agreed — before I started paying close attention. Having moved to Winston-Salem two weeks after Hunt’s first trial in 1985, I did not pay much attention to the coverage of the saga and, if asked, might have repeated what the police and district attorney’s office said repeatedly to the press: There were several people involved in the murder, and Hunt was probably one of them.

After reading Phoebe Zerwick’s series in November 2003 and talking with Larry Little and the Revs. Carlton Eversley and John Mendez, I began to pay more attention. What I have learned subsequent to 2003 has changed my perspective radically.

In 1985, Hunt was offered a $12,000 reward and told he would not be charged in the crime, if he simply said his friend, Sammy Mitchell, did it. He said, “No, not if I have to lie on Sammy to get it.” After his conviction was overturned and before the second trial, the prosecution offered him a plea bargain: Admit to second-degree murder and he could go home that day with the five years he had already served. Hunt said, “No.” When asked why, he gave two reasons: He wouldn’t bear false witness, and Sykes’ family deserved to know who killed her. Had Hunt agreed to either of those offers, justice would never have been served. Justice requires that the right person be convicted and incarcerated, not simply someone against whom a case can be made.

In 1994, Mark Rabil and Hunt’s defense team, over the objections of the prosecution, petitioned that DNA analysis of the rape kit be conducted. That analysis revealed that the three suspects implicated in the state’s theory of the crime — Hunt, Mitchell and Johnny Gray — could not have been the rapist. Knowing then that the rapist was not in custody, neither the Winston-Salem Police Department nor the district attorney’s office reopened the investigation to identify Sykes’ brutal murderer.

Rabil, however, kept filing appeals and, finally, in spring 2003, filed a motion to test the DNA evidence in a North Carolina database of violent, convicted felons. That testing led to the identification of Willard Brown as the murderer.

Darryl Hunt since exoneration

Fortunately, or providentially — as I believe — the case was solved, but not without a very high price and not without the courage, persistence and integrity of both Hunt and Rabil and, along with them, a number of other community advocates for justice, who would not give up on the truth.

So, a decision to pay more careful attention and to develop relationships with some of those involved in these events taught me several lessons. In order to preserve a cardinal principle of our criminal-justice system — the presumption of innocence — we, in the community and in the jury box, must listen and make informed judgments, not simply hold opinions based on those of others. We must carefully distinguish any particular person, along with his or her past — real or perceived — from the crime with which they are charged and wait for evidence, and then weigh its credibility without prejudice.

As for the opinion that our streets would be safer without Hunt among us, I couldn’t disagree more. Since his release, Hunt has created the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice that educates the public about needed reforms in areas such as more effective eyewitness identification procedures, reviews innocence claims of inmates and helps ex-offenders break the cycle of recidivism. He also serves on the board of directors of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence; as chair, Client Policy Group, National Legal Aid Defenders Association (Washington, D.C.); and on the board of the North Carolina Prison Legal Services.

I am very glad that Hunt is back in our community and am honored to work with him and others in these community efforts, including pursuing truth and justice in the Silk Plant Forest Case. If the enrichment that comes from paying closer attention and developing new relationships appeals to you, visit the website http://darrylhuntproject.org/ and join us.

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