Home Digital Collections Special Collections and Archives Finding Aids

Darryl Hunt and Hunt Trials Collection

Finding Aid & Inventory

To access this collection, please contact Leslie Wakeford, wakefolk@wfu.edu, at Law Library, Wake Forest School of Law.

Biographical and Historical Note

Darryl Hunt was born on February 24, 1965, in Winston-Salem, N.C. He was raised primarily by his maternal grandparents, William and Hattie Stroud, along with his older brother, Willie. A younger sister, Doris, lived with them briefly before going to live with another family member. Hunt's mother Jean was known to him as an aunt. However, she was killed when he was nine, only a week after he learned her true identity. Hunt attended local schools and dropped out of high school. He moved to Monterey, California, in 1980 to live with a cousin and returned to his hometown in 1983.

Deborah Brotherton Sykes was born on November 21, 1958, and raised in Iredell County, N.C., by her mother, Evelyn Jefferson. As a child she was voted the first "Little Miss Statesville." She attended North Iredell High School, graduating in 1977. Sykes earned a bachelor's degree from UNC Chapel Hill's School of Journalism in 1980. When Sykes started working as a copy editor at the Twin City Sentinel, the afternoon paper in Winston-Salem, she had four years of experience at smaller newspapers in Tennessee and North Carolina. She was married to Doug Sykes and the couple had moved from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Mooresville, N.C., in the summer of 1984 and were living with his parents while they looked for a house.

On August 10, 1984, Sykes, a 25-year-old white woman, was on her way to work early in the morning when she was raped and stabbed to death two blocks from the Sentinel's newsroom in downtown Winston-Salem. Although no physical evidence linked Hunt, a 19-year-old Black man, to the crime, he was misidentified in police lineups and charged with first-degree murder. In a 1985 trial, he was falsely convicted; a single juror saved him from the death penalty. Another jury re-convicted him in 1990, and the judge sentenced him to life imprisonment.

In 1994, post-conviction hearings regarding witness intimidation and discovery violations led to DNA tests proving that neither Hunt nor another suspect, Sammy Mitchell, were involved in the rape of Sykes. However, state and federal courts rejected case appeals and he remained falsely incarcerated. In prison, while working to free himself, Hunt converted to Islam. On October 17, 2000, he married April Clark, stepdaughter of Winston-Salem Imam Khalid Griggs, at Piedmont Correctional Institute in Salisbury, N.C.

In 2003, the efforts of Hunt's attorney and a Winston-Salem Journal eight-part article series by Phoebe Zerwick led to new DNA testing that identified Sykes' rapist and killer. That man, Willard Brown, confessed, pled guilty and is serving a sentence of life plus ten years. After nearly 20 years of wrongful incarceration, on December 24, 2003, Hunt was released. Then-Governor Michael F. Easley granted him a pardon of innocence after the court dismissed the charges in 2004. This restored Hunt's citizenship rights and enabled him to receive compensation for his years of wrongful imprisonment.

In 2007, the Sykes Administrative Review Committee determined that the police should have connected Brown to the Sykes case. In 1985, Regina Lane was kidnapped near the Integon building, located in downtown Winston-Salem across the street from the Sentinel offices, and forced at gunpoint to drive to a vacant drive-in movie theater, where she was raped. In 1986, Lane identified Brown as her attacker, but that information was not acted on by the police department in the Deborah Sykes homicide investigation.

After he was released, Hunt worked tirelessly to reform the criminal justice system. He founded The Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice, which helped over 5,000 "homecomers" – those returning home after serving prison sentences – to find jobs, housing, and counseling. Hunt's case and work inspired numerous legislative reforms in North Carolina, including the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission (2006), the Racial Justice Act (2009), open discovery in criminal cases, lineup identification reforms, increased statutory compensation for the wrongfully convicted, and a moratorium on executions for those on death row.

His case was the subject of a documentary, The Trials of Darryl Hunt (2006), directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. The film was broadcast on HBO in 2007 and won a number of grand jury and other prizes and recognitions at more than twenty film festivals, including the Sundance Film and Full Frame festivals. Hunt and attorney Mark Rabil spoke to students and audiences at hundreds of screenings over the years.

Hunt was found deceased in Winston-Salem on March 13, 2016, dead from a gunshot wound to the abdomen; his death was ruled a suicide.

One of Hunt's longest-term attorneys, Mark Rabil, attended Davidson College (1977) in Davidson, N.C., and received his juris doctor degree from the University of North Carolina School of Law (1980). In 1980, he began practicing law in Winston-Salem, and in 1983 became a supervising attorney for the WFU School of Law Litigation Clinic, a role he served in until 2013. In 1984, Rabil was court-appointed to assist a senior partner at his law firm, Gordon W. Jenkins, in representing Darryl Hunt. Rabil continued to represent Hunt for the next 20 years, through trials, hearings, investigations, appeals, and clemency and pardon proceedings. The two also continued to work together on criminal justice reform after Hunt's pardon. Over the years, in addition to Rabil and Jenkins, Hunt's defense team included Benjamin Dowling-Sendor, James E. Ferguson II, and Adam Stein.

Rabil was an assistant capital defender in N.C. and represented individuals charged with first-degree murder and facing the death penalty from 2003-2013. In 2003, he became an adjunct professor of trial advocacy at WFU School of Law until 2013, when he became a clinical professor. He has served as the Director of WFU's Innocence and Justice Clinic since 2009, and he also teaches legal classes and interdisciplinary courses with Professor Phoebe Zerwick, former Winston-Salem Journal reporter and director of WFU's Journalism program. In 2004, the N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers awarded Rabil the Thurgood Marshall Award for his work representing Darryl Hunt. Rabil wrote about his work in the Hunt case in two law review articles, "My Three Decades With Darryl Hunt" 75 Albany L. Rev. 1535 (2012) and "Secondary Trauma in Lawyering: An Introduction" 56 W.F. Law Rev. 719 (2021).


  • Local reporting from the Winston-Salem Journal, articles by Tracie Cone, Richard Craver, Jon Healy, Michael Hewlett, Phoebe Zerwick
  • . Accessible at Winston-Salem Journal, online.
  • The Trials of Darryl Hunt press kit. HBO Films.
  • "Mark Rabil," Wake Forest Law faculty profile. Accessed 2022 February 15.
  • Acessible at School of Law online.

Collection Overview

To access this collection, please contact Leslie Wakeford, wakefolk@wfu.edu, at Law Library, Wake Forest School of Law.

This collection documents the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of Darryl Hunt. Material collected by attorney Mark Rabil, from 1984 until Hunt's exoneration in 2004, includes extensive court documents and trial transcripts from two jury trials, investigative reports and interviews by police and detectives, correspondence, notebooks, legal research, newspaper articles, and photographs. A small amount of personal material written and collected by Hunt document his nearly 20-year incarceration and life after prison, when he founded The Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice.

Series 1. Correspondence, 1978-2012, contains letters regarding the Deborah Sykes case and the life and trials of Darryl Hunt. Letters between Mark Rabil and Hunt during Hunt's incarceration (1985-2003) are included in this series. Other frequent correspondents include Benjamin Dowling-Sendor, James E. Ferguson II, Larry Little, Richard McGough, and Adam Stein.

Series 2. Court Documents, 1984-2005, contains materials from the two trials in Forsyth County Superior Court in 1985 and 1990; two appeals with the N.C. Supreme Court; a federal appeal with the Middle District of N.C. and 4th Circuit Court of Appeals; and a petition for certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court. Types of materials include motions, briefs, opinions, orders, affidavits and subpoenas, as well as court documents pertaining to the resolution of State v. Hunt in 2003 and 2004. It also contains case law research, notes and drafts written by attorneys on Hunt's defense team, including Mark Rabil, Gordon W. Jenkins, James E. Ferguson II, Benjamin Dowling-Sendor, and others.

Series 3. Darryl Hunt personal materials, 1985-2003, contains material that Hunt wrote and collected while incarcerated, documenting the challenges and injustices he experienced in prison, as well as relationships with attorneys, friends, family and supporters. Topics include the progression of trials and legal challenges and interests that Hunt developed reflected in articles, church bulletins, course material, and related certificates. A limited amount of material in this series is restricted, including Darryl Hunt's journal, restricted at the request of Mark Rabil, and correspondence between April Hunt and Darryl Hunt, restricted at the request of April Hunt. This material is not currently listed in the finding aid due to these restrictions.

Series 4. Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice materials, 2004-2006, contains a small amount of material regarding the non-profit organization Darryl Hunt formed following his exoneration in 2004, The Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice. The series contains business plans, budgets, bylaws, correspondence, agendas and minutes from meetings of the Board of Directors.

Series 5. Documentary film materials, 1983-2007, contains material from the creation and advertising of the documentary film, The Trials of Darryl Hunt directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg of Break Thru Films. The filmmakers documented Hunt's case development using news coverage, courtroom footage and interviews, from 1993 until Darryl Hunt's release from prison in 2003. This series contains background research, correspondence, film festival screening materials, interview recordings and transcripts, script notes and a small collection of VHS and Betacam videotapes. Boxes 18 and 19 and an additional series of eight videotapes, containing interviews, script material, and documentary footage, are restricted at the request of the filmmakers. This material is not currently listed in the finding aid due to these restrictions.

Series 6. Investigative materials and crime scene photographs, 1977-2006, documents the investigation of the Deborah Sykes case by the Winston-Salem Police Department, the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, and private investigators. Materials include reports, interviews, transcripts, witness statements, notes and correspondence from police officers, deputies, investigators, attorneys, the City of Winston-Salem, and Forsyth County, N.C., Social Services.

Series 7. Legal research materials, 1937-2006, contains case law research gathered by Hunt's attorneys while constructing their defense strategies. Materials primarily include law journal and newspaper articles, motions, and reports. Many have notations, hand-written notes, or related correspondence attached.

Series 8. News articles and general photographs, 1983-2013, contains newspaper articles about a range of topics, including the Deborah Sykes case and investigation, the life of Darryl Hunt, court proceedings and trials, community reaction to the case and support of Darryl Hunt, race relations in Forsyth County, and current events. Publications include North Carolina newspapers such as the Winston-Salem Chronicle,  Winston-Salem Journal (WS Journal),  Sentinel,  Greensboro News and Record, and  News and Observer (Raleigh) as well as national papers, such as  The New York Times,  Washington Post, and  USA Today.

Series 9. Related cases materials, 1978-2007, contains material from cases associated with the Deborah Sykes homicide investigation and the wrongful conviction of Darryl Hunt. Cases include: James I. Daulton v. City of Winston-Salem, Chief Joseph Masten and Bryson A. Stuart; Darryl Hunt v. City of Winston-Salem; Darryl Hunt v. Martin J. McDade Correctional Center; In re: City Manager's Report regarding Deborah Sykes/Darryl Hunt, 1985 Integon Rape, Arthur Wilson Murder and other related matters; Johnny Gray v. Detective Spillman, Detective Bishop, Detective Riggs and Detective Cartner; State v. Darryl Hunt (Arthur Wilson case); State v. Larry D. Little; State v. Sammy Mitchell. Documents include correspondence, court documents, transcripts, notes and case research.

Series 10. Trial transcripts, 1984-1994, contains official trial transcripts, or the written record of court proceedings, from the two trials of Darryl Hunt in Forsyth County Superior Court in 1985 and 1990. These include pre-trial hearings and motions, jury selection, opening statements, testimony of witnesses, final arguments, summaries, appendices and exhibits. It also includes the Motion for Appropriate Relief Ex Parte hearing in 1993, the Supplemental Motion for Appropriate Relief and associated documents and exhibits.

Series 11. Writings and notes materials, 1983-2006, documents the progression of the Darryl Hunt trials through hand-written notes, interviews, drafts, and records that include trial preparation and strategy, investigation details, and personal reflections collected and written by Mark Rabil and other defense attorneys. It contains notebooks, outlines, memorandums, and notated transcripts and witness statements.

This collection is organized into 11 series, each with their own finding aid:

  • Series 1. Correspondence
  • Series 2. Court documents
  • Series 3. Darryl Hunt personal materials
  • Series 4. Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice materials
  • Series 5. Documentary film materials
  • Series 6. Investigative materials and crime scene photographs
  • Series 7. Legal research materials
  • Series 8. News articles and general photographs
  • Series 9. Related cases materials
  • Series 10. Trial transcripts
  • Series 11. Writings and notes materials

Collection Inventory

Summary Information

Z. Smith Reynolds Library Special Collections and Archives
Darryl Hunt and Hunt Trials Collection
Date [inclusive]
40 record cartons, 3 document boxes, 2 half-document boxes, 1 oversize box
55.18  Linear Feet

Administrative Information

Publication Information
Z. Smith Reynolds Library Special Collections and Archives, 2022
Access Restrictions
This collection is open for research at the Law Library, Wake Forest School of Law, with a small number of restricted items. Restricted material includes Darryl Hunt's journal (closed at request of Mark Rabil), a limited amount of correspondence between Darryl Hunt and April Hunt (closed at request of April Hunt), and film script material and documentary footage (closed at request of filmmakers, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg). This material is not currently listed in the finding aid due to these restrictions. Crime scene photographs, present in Series 6. Inventigative materials and crime scene photographs, can only be used for personal research. To access this collection, please contact Leslie Wakeford, wakefolk@wfu.edu, at Law Library, Wake Forest School of Law. 
Copyright Notice
The nature of the WFU Z. Smith Reynolds Library Special Collections and Archives means that copyright or other information about restrictions may be difficult or even impossible to determine despite reasonable efforts. The Archives and Special Collections of ZSR Library claims only physical ownership of most materials. The materials from our collections are made available for use in research, teaching, and private study, pursuant to the U.S. Copyright Law. The user must assume full responsibility for any use of the materials, including but not limited to, infringement of copyright and publication rights of reproduced materials. Any materials used for academic research or otherwise should be fully credited with the source. 
Preferred Citation
Darryl Hunt and Hunt Trials Collection (SLMS1), Law Library, Wake Forest School of Law, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC, USA. 

‹ Staff view ›