When the series ran, a court order was pending, the one that prompted my investigation, for new DNA testing. A month later, the state ran the new DNA evidence against its database and came up with a near match, which led police to look again at Brown, a 43-year-old man with a long criminal record. A closer look at the record showed that while he had still been under state supervision the day Sykes was murdered, he hadn’t actually been in prison. DNA testing matched him to the rape and he gave a full confession. He is now serving a life sentence plus 10 years.
My professional role in Hunt’s story ended when I left the newspaper, but I kept up with him informally, mostly through Rabil, whose life was shaped by it in ways more profound than mine. Rabil describes some of those experiences in a 2012 article he wrote for the Albany Law Review titled “My Three Decades with Darryl Hunt,” which is part case study, part memoir, part warning about the pitfalls of tunnel vision and our belief in reason and action. In it, Rabil tells how other lawyers in town ridiculed him for his relentless dedication to Hunt’s case and how Hunt’s post-conviction appeals and losses coincided with his first wife’s battle with cancer and then her death. Throughout, Rabil was driven by a burning anger.
“I think I broke my hand when I slammed it on the courthouse as I left following my brief statement to the media,” he wrote Hunt in 1994, in the same letter I read every year at Passover. “So it will probably be a long time before I stop feeling this day. I went to the YMCA and ran one mile for each year of this case in the wind and rain.”
Rabil also landed at Wake Forest, directing the law school’s Innocence and Justice Clinic, which reviews claims of wrongful conviction like Hunt’s. Occasionally I would see Hunt and Rabil together, when I was invited to sit on panels with them at screenings of the documentary. Hunt never watched the film, but instead appeared at the rear of the theater as the credits rolled; seeing his ordeal unfold on the screen had become too painful to watch. He suffered panic attacks, too. They could be triggered by something as simple as seeing a lime green light, which reminded him of the day he was convicted, when he stared at a reporter’s lime green socks to keep his composure in front of the cameras. Rabil called them symptoms of what he believed was post-traumatic stress disorder.
Rabil kept me up to date on Hunt, the way friends talk about another friend in trouble. By 2014, Hunt and his wife, April, had separated and he had moved to Durham. In 2015, Hunt moved to Atlanta to live with a half-sister. Sometime that year, I heard through Rabil that Hunt had prostate cancer. Rabil had driven to Atlanta, hoping Hunt would allow him to accompany him to the doctor to discuss treatment options. Instead, they met afterward for coffee. We chalked it up to stubborn pride. The following January, when it was time for Rabil to speak to my composition class, he told me Hunt had moved back to town, and he’d see if Hunt could come, too. I met Hunt outside the library, unsure how much to ask after his health, so I played it safe. “Welcome back,” I said, or something close to it. “I’m sorry you’ve been sick, but you look good.”
“Yea,” he said. “If I’m going to die, I might as well come home and be close to people I love.”
I hadn’t intended on writing about Hunt again. In fact, I figured I never would. My friendship with Rabil and Hunt’s work with my students meant I had lost the distance expected of journalists. But when Hunt died, the story pulled at me, in ways I couldn’t ignore. In part, I regretted that I had accepted his calm demeanor, which made him so inspiring to my students, but, I was now beginning to suspect, concealed a more troubled life. I fell back on what I knew best, a dogged reporting method developed over years in a newsroom, in the stubborn belief that if there’s truth to be told, it lies in the facts. I checked the court file on his divorce. I talked to the people who worked in the stores and restaurants at the College Plaza shopping center where he was found. I even tried tracking down the permit friends told me he had to carry a concealed weapon, but those are no longer public record. I hoped to find surveillance footage of the shopping center, but the manager told me they didn’t have a camera set up. I talked to anyone I could think of who had been close to him the last year of his life. And I pored over the Facebook posts that appeared within hours of the news breaking that police had found his body. One surprised me. It was a 10-second video of Hunt driving with April in a convertible, on a country road somewhere, with R&B playing on the radio. Hunt wore a red hat, April wore shades that made her look like a star. The moment looked recent and carefree.
Phoebe Zerwick is a journalist based in North Carolina and the director of journalism at Wake Forest University. Her work has been published in Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine, National Geographic online, and The Nation online. Research for this story was supported in part by a grant from Duke Law School.