‘The Trials of Darryl Hunt’

Jan 13, 2008  •  Post A Comment

“The Trials of Darryl Hunt,” a two-hour film that aired on HBO documenting the brutal rape and murder of a young white newspaper editor in North Carolina and a complex quest for justice, was a 13-year undertaking for filmmakers Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern. The duPont Award-winning program exposes the emotionally wrenching, circuitous journey after an innocent black man was convicted of the crime—and spent nearly 20 years behind bars.
In 1984, Deborah Sykes was killed in Winston-Salem, N.C., near the newspaper where she worked as a copy editor, her bloodied body found in a field. Based on a tip from a former Ku Klux Klan member, 19-year-old Darryl Hunt was arrested. There was no physical evidence that linked him to the crime, but the African-American youth was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to life in prison. After an appeal, he was convicted a second time.
The filmmakers became involved in 1993 after receiving a call from an investigator on Mr. Hunt’s defense team asking them to come down in hopes of garnering some attention to show the community that other eyes were watching.
“We drove down to North Carolina with cinematographer William Rexer and a 16-millimeter camera for a couple weeks and began to investigate and get documents. Every night we met up with the defense team, who gave us full access to their work,” said Ms. Stern. “Witness intimidation hearings were going on, and we were learning as we were going. I certainly had nothing invested in Darryl’s innocence. We didn’t know, so it was quite nerve-wracking. The state was very persuasive. Both sides were.”
“We thought this could be an interesting story about race relations and the justice system, possibly a contemporary ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’” said Ms. Sundberg. “The local news media was very jaded and tired of the story and very vocal about how it was a waste of their time. I was astounded. It was an eyewitness crime. You’d swing wildly from ‘He’s guilty’ to ‘He’s innocent.’ It was an interesting exploration for us.”
In 1994, DNA evidence cleared Mr. Hunt. However, he was imprisoned for another 10 years, despite the best efforts of his dedicated, pro bono defense team and a core group of supporters who steadfastly maintained their belief in his innocence and refused to give up their quest to free him.
“We understood what drove them to pursue the appeal without getting paid, the passion behind it. As a filmmaker that’s what interesting, what drives that passion,” Ms. Stern said.
They also met Mr. Hunt and became deeply impressed with his character, determination and lack of bitterness.
Still, they were not able to tell his story. They applied for funding but couldn’t get it. Sometimes they didn’t develop the footage they shot—often on free stock—instead storing it in the freezer. After Mr. Hunt’s appeal was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court, their hopes of getting the film made reached a nadir, yet they never gave up, even as file cabinets filled with case material took up half their work space.
“It was a difficult decision, but we had to put it on the shelf,” Ms. Sundberg said.
The turning point came in 2003, when a local newspaper reporter did a multipart investigative report on the case, focusing national attention on a community and a criminal justice system mired in racism.
The filmmakers were able to get completion money, and the film premiered at Sundance in 2006 before airing on HBO in April. Mr. Hunt was released from prison in December 2004.
Credits: Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg, directors and executive producers; Katie Brown, William Rexer II, Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg, producers; Shannon Kennedy, editor; William Rexer II, cinematographer; John Foster, Alan Jacobson, Shannon Kennedy, additional cinematography and digital video; Paul Brill, original score; Brad Bergbom, sound editor; Nancy Abraham, supervising producer, HBO; Sheila Nevins, executive producer, HBO


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