The Trials of Darryl Hunt (review)
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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by MaryAnn Johanson
MPAA: not rated
viewed at home on a small screen
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