This week, less than two weeks after Henry McCollum was declared innocent and freed after 30 years on death row, I read in The News & Observer that there is yet another man who may be innocent living under a death sentence in North Carolina.
This one, Norfolk Best, has spent 21 years on death row despite weak evidence and other suspects who were never fully investigated. After such news, the public’s attention is naturally focused on the innocent people who have been imprisoned. However, we shouldn’t be lulled into feeling that cases like these are tragedies only for the wrongly convicted. In reality, if police drop leads, destroy evidence too soon, settle on one suspect, hide evidence or arrest the wrong people, it puts us all in danger.
I learned this lesson in the worst possible way. I was kidnapped, stabbed multiple times and nearly killed because of a botched murder investigation that started with the sinful nature of one man and caused chaos in Winston-Salem for years.
In 1984, our city was shocked when Deborah Sykes was stabbed to death in broad daylight on her way to work. Like most people, I was relieved when police announced the arrest of Darryl Hunt. However, we lived for 18 years under a false sense of security before police and prosecutors admitted they had the wrong man.
Six months after Deborah’s murder, while Hunt was in jail awaiting trial, I was going to work two blocks from where Deborah’s body was found. As I approached the door, a man blocked my path and pointed a gun at me. Still at gunpoint, he grabbed the collar of my jacket and forced me back to my car, then ordered me to drive him to a secluded wooded area. There, he robbed, raped, pistol whipped me and tried to slash my throat twice with a knife. It was only by the grace of God that I was able to fight back and run away to find help.
I now know that my attacker was Willard Brown, the same man who murdered Sykes. I picked Brown out of a lineup in 1985. In 2004, DNA evidence proved that he was Deborah’s killer. He was convicted, and Hunt was finally exonerated. Hunt spent 18 years in prison.
Deborah and I were both young women on our way to work. We were both raped and stabbed. The photos of our injuries looked very similar. Police, however, scolded me for pointing out the similarities. They told me not to do anything to hurt the case against Hunt. They didn’t want to put doubts in people’s minds.
They also discouraged me from pursuing charges against Willard Brown, saying it would only be my word against his and that he would likely get a light sentence. They even implied that I might have gone with my attacker willingly. They persuaded me not to put myself through a trial.
They were more interested years ago in holding onto their conviction than in keeping other women safe from a violent predator.
We will never know for sure how many women Willard Brown victimized. I know of at least two other women, aside from Deborah and myself, who were violently attacked within the same eight-month period.
After Brown was finally caught, and the injustices in Darryl’s case came to light, I wanted to believe that such mistakes would not be made again. But reading the details of the recent exonerations, a flashback of sadness is washing over me.
In McCollum’s case, the true perpetrator had a long history of rape and violence against women. Yet, McCollum and his brother, Leon Brown, both innocent, were sent to prison, and the killer remained free long enough to murder another woman. In Best’s case, we can only imagine what other crimes were committed by a man sick enough to rape an elderly woman in front of her husband and then stab them both to death.
I’m asking myself, how can this be happening again? As a child, my parents instilled in me a strong sense of right and wrong, and as an adult I have an expectation that the system charged with keeping us safe was always in the right. Sadly, I’ve lost that trust.
Something in our justice system is very broken. Innocent men and women have paid with decades of their lives, and we are left at the mercy of killers. My hope is that good police work, Forensic Science along with DNA evidence can continue to make a difference.
Regina Lane lives in Winston-Salem where she works in the insurance industry.