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Sundance doc explores man’s wrongful conviction

Patrick Parkinson Of the Record staff

Darryl Hunt thoroughly enjoyed his day in Park City Monday especially considering the alternative.

"I would have been executed in 1994 probably," Hunt said during an interview following the second Sundance Film Festival screening of "The Trials of Darryl Hunt."

"They saved my life, that’s what they actually did, they saved my life," Hunt said referring to a group of lawyers, filmmakers community activists and friends who fought for decades for his freedom. The documentary is based on 20 years of Hunt’s life, starting when he was accused of killing a newspaper copy editor in Winston-Salem, N.C., in 1984. The white woman, Deborah Sykes, was raped, sodomized and stabbed to death blocks from her office. Hunt, a black man, was fingered for the crime by a former member of the Ku Klux Klan and sentenced to life in prison.

"Hopefully this documentary, my life story, will help prevent this from happening to somebody else," Hunt said. Though DNA testing ten years later determined Hunt had not deposited the semen found inside Sykes, the court was not convinced Hunt was innocent of the woman’s murder. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2000 rejected Hunt’s appeal despite doubt the results of DNA testing cast on his conviction.

But after a newspaper reporter probed the case in 2004, Hunt was freed from prison when his defense team located a match in a DNA database for the evidence retrieved at the crime scene. The real killer was found. "God sent people to me that were like fathers and big brothers that helped me get through it," Hunt told an audience Monday. One of those was attorney Mark Rabil who stood by Hunt’s side for two decades. Though "The Trials of Darryl Hunt" contains 20 years of riveting footage, a scene where Rabil breaks into tears after learning one of Hunt’s appeals was denied is one of the film’s most moving. "The system does not work. This film, this story is an example of the complete failure of the system," Hunt said after Monday’s screening. "Darryl was freed in spite of the system." Filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, who were too broke to process the film in the ’90s, didn’t see the emotional footage of Rabil until editing began ten years later. "We stuck some rolls of film that we had shot in the freezer and we never processed it because it costs money and we just thought it was hopeless," Stern said during a telephone interview Friday. "It looked like the film wasn’t going to get finished."

Unlike financing, however, access wasn’t a problem for the crew. Attorney-client privilege was waived so the women could closely cover the story. "There was a lot of trust involved," Sundberg said. "They opened Darryl’s case up to us completely and we felt very, very lucky for that."

Images of newspaper headlines and television clips provide a haunting understanding of Hunt’s plight but long shots taken in Sykes’ North Carolina neighborhood also allow audiences to emphasize with the final moments of a murder victim’s life. "At the time that we were starting to tell the story, we felt that the victim had to have a voice," Sundberg said. "She’s just as much a character in the story."

But the 20 years Hunt spent in prison, as police officers, prosecutors and judges bungled his case, has left Sundance audiences "outraged," Stern beamed. "It’s surpassed our dreams, because, I think people really do feel energized by this film," Sundberg said. "There is a feeling at the end of the film that I think audiences are really connecting with, which is, there is a potential for reform." Rabil praised the directors for finishing the project and getting Hunt’s story in front of an international audience. "[The film] brought pressure to bear on the judicial system, which is a political system, which is subject to the opinions of the people out there," the attorney said. "In order to change policy you have to change minds." To prevent wrongful imprisonment, he advises citizens to serve jury duty and pay attention to judicial nominations. "We need people who are aware, people who have seen this film to be part of this system," Rabil said. "I always knew that the system had to be forced to do the right thing."

Meanwhile, having told Hunt’s story, Sundberg says she too is a bit more cynical. "We’ve all grown up along the way," she said.

For more information about the documentary visit http://www.thetrialsofdarrylhunt.com.

The documentary screens Friday at 11:30 a.m. at Prospector Square Theatre and Saturday at 9:15 a.m. at Holiday Village Cinema III.


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