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Darryl Hunt

Related Case: Darryl Hunt's Exoneration for the Murder of Deborah Sykes
On September 17, 1983, 57-year-old Arthur Wilson was beaten to death after spending the evening buying drinks at Ezell Clowers’s liquor house in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His body was found in the middle of Claremont Avenue, between 17th and 18th streets.

After two months of investigating, the Winston-Salem Police Department was unable to identify any suspects, and the case was marked inactive.

In the spring of 1986, a man named Merritt Drayton was arrested by Winston-Salem police on a manslaughter charge after witnesses said he pushed Mary Smith down a flight of stairs during an argument, leading to her death 12 days later.

Worried that he would be tried for murder because Smith was a white woman, Drayton, who is Black, attempted to gain favor with the police by naming himself, Darryl Hunt, and Sammy Mitchell as the people involved in Wilson’s death. In a statement to police on April 11, 1986, Drayton said that the three of them had robbed Wilson and that Mitchell beat him in the head with an axe handle.

At the time, Hunt was already serving a life sentence for the murder of 25-year-old Deborah Sykes, whose body had been found on August 10, 1984, in a field near downtown Winston-Salem. (He would be exonerated of this crime in 2004.) She had been stabbed and sexually assaulted. The investigation in the Sykes case quickly centered on Hunt, who was then 19 years old, and his best friend, Mitchell. Although there was no physical or forensic evidence connecting Hunt to the murder, he was convicted of first-degree murder on June 14, 1985.

Detectives Randy Weavil, Teresa Hicks, and Bobby Spillman began to investigate Drayton’s claims regarding Hunt and Mitchell. They brought Drayton to the apartment he shared with his girlfriend, Mattie Mae Davis. There, Drayton gave them an axe handle covered with black tape, which he said was the weapon used to kill Wilson three years earlier. He also gave detectives the names of other witnesses from the liquor house that night. By then, Clowers’s original liquor house, at the corner of Claremont Avenue and 19th Street, had been torn down, but he had opened up another one across the street, where the detectives found many of the people Drayton had told them about.

Detectives spoke to people who said they were at the liquor house the night Wilson died, and six witnesses said that they heard Mitchell arguing with Wilson because he was buying drinks for the house, but would not buy any for Mitchell and Hunt. Five of these witnesses said they observed Mitchell with a stick, either that night or at other times during the summer. Along with Davis, two other women—Barbara Bason and Patricia Williams—said they saw Hunt and Mitchell attack Wilson.

About a week after speaking with Drayton, detectives visited Hunt at Southern Correctional Institution. They wanted to question him about Wilson’s death, but Hunt refused to take part without an attorney present. After his attorneys arrived, Hunt told police that he did not know Wilson, did not kill him, and did not know who did. The detectives left to prepare the warrant, and Hunt—along with Mitchell and Drayton—was charged with first-degree murder on April 18, 1986.

Bason, Davis, and Williams testified at a probable cause hearing on May 5, 1986. Bason said that she saw Mitchell at the liquor house on the night of Wilson’s death holding a stick with black tape wrapped around it, the same stick she had seen him with several times before. When she left the liquor house that evening, she went in the same direction as Wilson. Although she was 100 feet away, she said she was able to see Mitchell hit Wilson in the back with his stick and see Drayton and Hunt kick Wilson. On cross-examination, she said that Mitchell actually hit Wilson a couple times on his head from behind.

Davis, who was Drayton’s girlfriend at the time of the killing, said that she left the liquor house with Drayton, and they saw Mitchell run up and push Wilson in the chest and then kick him. She said she did not see the stick that police discovered in her apartment, and she did not see anyone but Mitchell hit or kick Wilson. Hunt was with Mitchell, she said, but he did not do anything to harm Wilson. Hunt, she said, was actually standing about 10 feet away from Mitchell and Wilson.

Williams said she had gone outside the liquor house to vomit, and as she looked up, she saw Wilson fall in the street. She said she then saw Mitchell, Hunt, and a third man circle around Wilson. She said Mitchell hit Wilson with a stick, and Hunt kicked him.

Williams said at the probable-cause hearing that Wilson had already crossed 18th Street when the attack occurred. Davis said the attack happened just a few houses south of the liquor house, in the 1800 block of Claremont Avenue. Bason testified the attack occurred near the corner of 18th and Claremont. Hicks testified at the hearing that she visited Drayton at the Forsyth County Jail on April 9, 1986, upon Drayton’s request. He said Drayton signed a Miranda waiver on April 11, and that Drayton was not offered a deal in exchange for his testimony; Drayton just wanted to “clear his conscience.” Drayton also testified he was not offered a deal and said that Mitchell gave him the axe handle to hit Wilson in the arm. Drayton testified that he, Mitchell, and Hunt robbed Wilson after they left the liquor house, and he only came clean to police after Davis encouraged him to.

Three months after the hearing, Drayton filed an affidavit that contradicted much of his testimony. In the affidavit, Drayton said that while he was being questioned about the Smith manslaughter charge, Detective Riley Spoon asked him if he knew whether Mitchell had anything to do with the Sykes murder. Drayton said that Detective Spoon told him that Smith had been an informant with the Sykes case and knew she had “told [him] something,” about the case. Then, according to Drayton, Detectives Hicks and Weavil visited Drayton at the Forsyth County Jail on April 9, 1986, and offered to help him with his manslaughter charges if he knew something about the Sykes murder. Drayton wrote in the affidavit, “I was worried that the officers were mad at me because they thought I knew something about the Sykes murder, and I was afraid that they would try to send me to jail for as long as they could if they did not believe that I was cooperating with them.” So in the interview on April 11, Drayton said, he told police about the axe handle in his apartment. He said he decided to give up Mitchell and Hunt for the Wilson case in order to help himself. However, according to Detective Spoon, Smith was never a police informant, and he never asked Drayton for help with information about Sykes.

Hunt’s trial began on September 21, 1987 in Forsyth County Superior Court before Judge William H. Helms. Prosecutors wanted to try Hunt for first-degree murder, but because Mitchell had already been convicted of second-degree murder in Wilson’s death, Judge Helms ruled that Hunt could only be tried for second-degree murder. During jury selection, of the 40 jurors examined, seven were Black. Three of those Black potential jurors were dismissed for cause. The State then used its peremptory challenges to strike three more Black jury pool members. The seated jury included only one Black juror.

A pathologist said that Wilson’s death was caused by a single blow to his head. His autopsy report listed no other injuries such as bruises or scrapes, which would be expected if he had been beaten. His blood alcohol level was listed at 0.29, nearly three times what was the legal limit for driving at the time.

Drayton did not testify. Bason testified that she left the liquor house that night and walked in the same direction as Wilson. She said she saw Mitchell hit Wilson over the head with a stick and saw Hunt kick him. On cross-examination, she said she had been drinking for about 16 hours at the time the attack happened but was not drunk. Her testimony placed her at least 100 feet from where she said the attack occurred and 200 feet from where Wilson’s body was found.

Davis testified that she left the liquor house with Drayton, and together they walked down Claremont Avenue. When the pair came across Mitchell and Hunt, Davis said she saw Mitchell knock Wilson down and kick him. Hunt’s only involvement, according to Davis, was that he bent down to look and see if Wilson was alright.

Williams testified that she was at the liquor house and went outside to vomit, as she had been drinking heavily. While she was outside, she said, she looked down the street and saw Mitchell, Hunt, and Wilson 200 feet away. She claimed that she saw Mitchell hit Wilson and Hunt kick him. Bason, Davis, and Williams each testified that at no point did they see each other.

The State introduced the axe handle from Drayton’s apartment into evidence. Bason said it was the stick she saw Mitchell carrying that night and the one she witnessed him use to hit Wilson. Williams said she saw Mitchell use a stick to hit Wilson, but that she did not see Mitchell with the stick while he was at the liquor house. Davis said she did not see Mitchell with a stick. John Bendura, an agent with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, testified that a wool fiber that he found on the axe handle appeared to be consistent in color, composition, and surface characteristics to a fiber taken from the pants Wilson was wearing. However, no hair or blood evidence was found on the axe handle.

Hunt’s attorneys, James Ferguson and Adam Stein, introduced evidence including photographs of the crime scene taken at night to show that it would be too dark for the witnesses to see what they had described in their testimony, from the distance they said they observed it. (The state’s photos were taken during the daytime.) The State then offered rebuttal evidence tending to show that Bason and Williams could have seen what they said they saw.

The jury deliberated for nearly 11 hours over three days and returned a guilty verdict on October 2, 1987. Judge Helms sentenced Hunt to 40 years in prison, which would begin after Hunt’s life sentence in the Sykes murder.

Hunt appealed. In a motion for new trial filed on May 18, 1988, Stein argued that Judge Helms erroneously instructed the jury that it could convict Hunt of second-degree murder if it found that he had acted in concert with Mitchell “with a common purpose to commit robbery,” and that he had erred in refusing to instruct the jury that “a person is not guilty of a crime merely because he is present at the scene, even though he may silently approve of the crime or secretly intend to assist in its commission” when there was evidence of the defendant’s innocent presence at the scene of the crime.

The appeal also argued that the district attorney’s use of peremptory challenges to three Black jurors was unlawful under Batson v. Kentucky. In Batson, the United States Supreme Court held that a prosecutor’s use of a peremptory challenge in a criminal case may not be used to exclude jurors based solely on their race. On October 18, 1988, the North Carolina Court of Appeals granted Hunt a new trial. The court said that a conviction for second-degree murder requires a finding that the defendant acted intentionally and with malice to kill the victim. The jury instructions, the court said, could have led the jury to convict Hunt of second-degree murder based solely on his participation in the robbery. But North Carolina didn’t recognize felony murder—a murder convicted during the commission of another crime—as a basis for a conviction of second-degree murder, the court said.

Despite the ruling, Hunt remained in prison on the Sykes conviction. But in 1989, the North Carolina Supreme Court granted him a new trial in that case. Community members raised $50,000 for bond, and Hunt was able to leave Moore Correctional Institution on November 22, 1989, after four years in prison. He went home to Winston-Salem to await new trials in both cases. His attorneys asked for a change in venue, and the judge moved both trials to Catawba County, which was an hour west of Winston-Salem and had a Black population of just 9 percent.

The second Wilson trial began in spring 1990, and Forsyth County District Attorney Warren Sparrow decided to try the case himself. Unlike the first trial, Sparrow called on Drayton to testify. In the fall of 1986, Drayton had written several letters, including one to the governor and one to the United States Department of Justice, recanting his statements to police because he said he lied to set up Mitchell and Hunt. On cross-examination, Ferguson questioned Drayton about his affidavit and these letters. The defense presented Dr. Selwyn Rose, a psychiatrist, who had performed an evaluation of Drayton in 1986. Dr. Rose discredited Drayton by testifying that he was not a “believable person.” The defense again called Ronald McGee, who had told police in the initial investigation that he drove after the men who attacked Wilson. As at the first trial, McGee testified that he was certain that Hunt was not one of the men he chased in his car that night.

During the second trial, Sparrow offered Hunt a deal to plead guilty to both the Wilson and Sykes murders in exchange for time served. In discussing the offer that evening with his friend, Larry Little, Hunt said, “Larry, Allah would not forgive me for bearing false witness.” Hunt turned the deal down.

This time, the jury deliberated for less than four hours before voting to acquit Hunt on March 30, 1990. According to Pat Eaton, the jury foreman, the jury did not want to convict Hunt based on the testimony of drunk witnesses. “You don’t go in a liquor house if you ain’t drinking,” Eaton said. “They might have been right. I don’t know. But you see, you have to give him the benefit of the doubt, and we did.”

Hunt was reconvicted of the Sykes murder on October 11, 1990, and his exoneration in that case would take an additional 13 years. He was released from prison on December 24, 2003, after DNA evidence in the Sykes murder showed that a man named Willard Brown was the actual perpetrator. A judge dismissed the charges against Hunt on February 6, 2004, and Governor Mike Easley granted him a pardon of innocence on April 15, 2004. Hunt later received $750,000 in state compensation and settled a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Winston-Salem for $1.65 million.

Hunt established the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice, and he traveled extensively to speak out on behalf of wrongfully convicted persons. His case helped lead to the creation of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, a state agency that investigates wrongful convictions.

Friends also said that the trauma of his wrongful conviction and the glare of the spotlight after his exoneration took a toll. He battled depression and died in Winston-Salem on March 13, 2016, of what the police said was a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

– Jolie Pringle

Material from the Darryl Hunt Collections at the Wake Forest University School of Law was used in the preparation of this summary.

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Posting Date: 12/30/2023
Last Updated: 12/30/2023
State:North Carolina
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1983
Sentence:40 years
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No