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The Trials of Darryl Hunt (review)

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Imagine this: You spend 20 years in prison for a horrific crime that you did not commit. Worse: It’s the kind of crime that makes you the target of other prisoners’ rough justice. (You’re a scary black man with a past criminal record, though for relatively minor offenses. The victim is a nice white woman who was brutally raped and murdered.) Worst, 10 of those 20 years that you spent in prison come after DNA testing has conclusively proven that you did not commit the crime, while you wait for the district attorney to give you another shot at clearing your name in the eyes of the courts and society.
This is Darryl Hunt’s story: he was convicted of killing newspaper editor Deborah Sykes in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1984, and he was released from prison without so much as an apology in 2004. Documentarians Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg relate this horror of modern criminal justice — or lack thereof — in the most direct of manners, through old news footage covering Sykes’ murder, the police “investigation,” and Hunt’s multiple trials; and through straight-up talking head interviews with participants, including Hunt and his lawyers, journalists who covered the story, and others. It ends up a rarity in these sorry days of the dying art of genuine journalism: a sensational story told without sensationalism, without editorializing, but without holding back on the one thing we’re supposed to be expecting our free press to be doing, speaking truth to power.

The Winston-Salem police declined to offer its side of the story, so it is left to us to make our own conclusions about the rush to judgment, the coercion and misleading of witnesses, and the ingrained institutional racism that appears to have led to Hunt’s arrest and conviction. (The Klansman who testifies, rather irrelevantly, for the prosecution in Hunt’s first trial is a particular doozy.) And there is no conclusion to draw except that Hunt was railroaded, that the police and the D.A. cared more about a conviction — any conviction — than about bringing to justice Sykes’ real killer. Stern and Sundberg present this inescapable truth plainly and baldly, and the cool and detached way in which they bring us this very impassioned story is a testament not only to its undeniable veracity — one that does not need to rely on appeals to emotionalism, as the prosecution did to ensure a conviction of Hunt – but to the power of pointed journalism to set the truth free.

’The Trials of Darryl Hunt’ premieres tonight on HBO and airs numerous times throughout the month of May. Screenings are also being held across the U.S. in upcoming weeks; see the official site for details.

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MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb
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  • Javier

    What an incredible documentary. What happened in Winston-Salem still can happen anywhere. Thank God for a cadre of activists and Darryl Hunt’s steadfast, yet graceful spirit that they never wavered in proclaiming his innocent. A must-see documentary for anyone who loves justice.

  • Jim

    the DNA proved that Hunt didn’t r@pe deborah sykes, but tells nothing of whether Hunt killed her or was an accomplice acting as a lookout while she was being kil|ed/r@ped. basically Hunt was convicted by 24 jurors in 2 separate cases, so they must have believed the circumstantial evidence. Hunt was also tried for a previous m&rder as well, but we don’t hear about that? wonder why?

    this film simply tries to invoke emotions of racism, classicm, and foul play down South – what an unoriginal myth. all of the witness testimony against Hunt was from blacks, so who saw it as a racist issue? bottom line: movie misleads and exagerates claims of corruption and framing of an innocent. Hunt was a bad guy who most likely helped in Syke’s death, but hey, it makes for a great controversial movie, doesn’t it? bottom line: don’t trust movies.

  • MaryAnn

    the DNA proved that Hunt didn’t r@pe deborah sykes, but tells nothing of whether Hunt killed her or was an accomplice

    True. The DNA evidence also does not exclude you or me from having participated in the crime, either.

    The same could be said of the Duke students accused of rape. Funny how they were allowed an assumption of innocence with, seemingly, far more circumstantial evidence against them than Darryl Hunt was afforded.

    Society can’t have it both ways. Either there is one standard of evidence for everyone, or there is no chance of even approaching fairness in our criminal justice system.

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