Mark Rabil was just out of law school then, 30 years-plus ago now, and he was appointed to represent a 19-year-old man in Winston-Salem accused of a heinous rape and murder. Then he talked with Darryl Hunt, facing those charges in the death of Deborah Sykes, a 25-year-old copy editor with the Twin-City Sentinel in Winston-Salem.
“After an hour,” Rabil says now, “I thought he was innocent.”
Rabil’s instinct was right. But it would be almost 20 years before everyone else thought so, too.
In that time, Rabil would remain steadfast, through multiple trials, through maddening confrontations within the justice system. Even after DNA testing proved Hunt’s innocence, it would be another 10 years before Hunt was exonerated when another man’s DNA was matched to the crime.
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Wednesday night, Rabil led the speakers at a gathering of those who had worked on Hunt’s case, who had worked with Hunt after he was freed and started an organization to help inmates reentering society. (He had received roughly $2.3 million in compensation from the city of Winston-Salem and the state.) It was a group of righteous people at the Raleigh home of Gerda Stein, of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. (Her father, famed Chapel Hill defender Adam Stein, was among Hunt’s lawyers in those years. Her brother, Josh Stein, just resigned from the state Senate to focus on his campaign for Attorney General.)
But it was a somber group, a wake of sorts for Darryl Hunt, who died, police said, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a parking lot in Winston-Salem almost two weeks ago. He had, friends said, been diagnosed with cancer, and was under pressure from other personal problems. The man whose youth had been wrongly taken from him was only 51, and still advocating for fairness in a flawed system of justice.
Through it all, he maintained an inspiring calm.
“He’s an unassuming and humble guy,” Rabil said, still speaking of Hunt in the present tense. He showed a picture Hunt had sent him recently. Hunt’s aim since he gained his freedom had been, Rabil said, to help people Hunt called “home comers,” teaching them basic skills like finding a job or even riding a bus after their release from prison.
Hunt’s own righteousness, Rabil believes, came from his grandfather, who helped raise him. “His grandfather,” Rabil said, “taught him to tell the truth, and Darryl believed that and that everything would be all right.” That teaching, Rabil believes, was why Hunt refused all deals that would have set him free. “He turned down one deal after another,” Rabil said. “He knew he was innocent.”
There were multiple jury trials, each an ordeal. There was an editorial and a powerful series on the case from the Winston-Salem Journal, which got the attention of a judge. After the DNA had identified the murderer, who happened to be in prison, Darryl Hunt was free, getting compensation from the state for his wrongful imprisonment and then collecting a settlement from the city of Winston-Salem. Rabil and others continued to stay in touch with Hunt, who was forever giving money away to pay for funerals or help others. And running his own organization to assist those released from prison, the Darryl Hunt Project, which helped thousands of people over 10 years.
Rabil, now with the Wake Forest University law school, and the other defenders who gathered Wednesday, still shed a tear for Darryl Hunt, who upon being cleared more than 10 years ago, told the mother of Deborah Sykes, “I lost 20 years, but you lost your daughter. Your loss was greater than mine.”
Rabil went from defender to friend and admirer, as did so many who spoke on Wednesday. And the Hunt case is reviewed in law schools around the United States and cited as a reason for the need for reform in a justice system skewed by bad informants or improper evidence or manipulation by prosecutors. So Darryl Hunt, a man with the courage of forgiveness and the willingness to help others learn from his horrific misfortune, is teaching still.
“He is,” Rabil said. Speaking now and forever of his friend, in the present tense.
Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at firstname.lastname@example.org