Wrongly Imprisoned, Darryl Hunt Tells 1Ls to "Do what's just"

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“Whatever you do in life, think about what’s right.”

Though soft-spoken, Darryl Hunt delivered his message to Duke Law School’s class of 2007 with unmistakable passion. Released last December after spending almost 19 years wrongly imprisoned for the 1984 murder of Deborah Sykes in Winston-Salem, NC, Hunt and his attorney, Mark Rabil, addressed 218 1Ls on Aug. 18, their third day of Law School orientation.

“I’m here to talk about the importance of humanity,” Hunt went on. “People forget that we are all human beings. It’s not about win or lose, but what’s right. If you keep that in front of you, cases like [mine] and others will not happen. There won’t be innocent people on death row, in prison, and being killed.”

“For 19 years I sat in prison for a crime I didn’t commit because people wanted to win, not because they wanted justice and for the truth to come out.”

Fleshing out the facts of Hunt’s ordeal, Rabil accused all branches of the legal system of failing his client. The District Attorney zealously pursued the case against Hunt in spite of the absence of incriminating physical evidence, his lack of resemblance to composite sketches of the perpetrator, alibi witnesses, multiple changes in testimony from a prosecution witness, and the fact that a strikingly similar crime–long unsolved–was committed when Hunt was in custody. DNA testing was not used to exonerate Hunt from Sykes’ rape until after his second trial, even then being contested by the prosecutor and called dubious by the judge, who refused to vacate the murder conviction.

Hunt twice refused offers that would grant his freedom. The first, in 1984, demanded that he testify against an innocent co-defendant; the second, made in 1990 after his second trial, was contingent on a guilty plea.

“For me to accept a plea bargain for something I didn’t do would be wrong, and it would create a false impression for [the victim’s family] as well,” said Hunt. “Every person should have some conviction to stand on. The only thing I had was my innocence.”

Although Hunt had supporters fighting passionately for his release, progress was slow until 2003, when the Winston-Salem Journal ran an investigative series on the case and raised substantial doubt, Rabil said. New DNA tests linked another man, Willard Brown, to Sykes’ rape, and he admitted to her murder, saying he acted alone. While Brown had been a suspect at one time, a typographical error in jail records had led authorities to believe he was in custody at the time of her murder.

Hunt told the students that he is still deeply affected by his time in prison, but insisted that his faith helped him to persevere in prison and allows him to avoid bitterness now.

“If God says he can forgive you, you can forgive others,” he said. “I wanted to live. Bitterness and hatred can eat you up on the inside. I was at peace in my heart.”

“I pray that whatever you become, you will do the right thing and do what’s just,” he concluded.

Students responded to Hunt’s address with a sustained standing ovation and emotional acknowledgements that they took his message to heart.

“I was blown away by his story,” said Hye-Kyung Chang. “His statement to keep what’s right in mind is a great way to start law school.”

Jonathan Connell agreed. “As we all sit here, about to embark on a profession based on high ideals, he personified what integrity and strength are worth.”

Hunt’s presentation was a highlight in a week packed with speakers and activities that took their themes from the principles set out in the Duke Blueprint to LEAD: Engage intellectually, act ethically, lead effectively, build relationships, serve the community, practice professionalism, and live with purpose.

In her welcoming remarks to the class of 2007, Dean Katharine Bartlett suggested that its members start thinking about what they want their individual reference letters from Duke Law to look like at the end of three years.

“What do you want to be true about yourself? If you have that in mind, you will get what you want out of a Duke education.”

Speaking on leadership, Charlotte-based attorney and ESPN analyst Jay Bilas ’92, a former Duke basketball player and assistant coach, said that on the court the greatest players are those who make their teammates and those around them better.

“You can show leadership in a lot of different ways, but the main quality of a leader is helping your team.”

While leadership and relationships were the focus of the first day of orientation, ethics and professionalism took center stage on the second. In her keynote address, Dr. Elizabeth Kiss, the Director of Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics, noted that law schools have not always welcomed an open discussion of law and ethics.

“By organizing a day around ethics, Duke Law School is saying that as you begin your formal training to enter the legal profession, you need to think about the ethical dimensions of what it means to be a legal professional.

“Don’t let your conscience go on autopilot. Constantly assess your values. Seek out dialogue, within the classroom and outside. Being a person who acts ethically and knows how to act takes practice. Raising ethical questions within and about the law takes practice,” she advised, noting that it’s also easy to be sloppy regarding ethics. Kiss cautioned students against “confusing winning with justice. Victory within the justice system does not always equal justice.”

Incoming students also had numerous opportunities to bond with classmates, orientation leaders, and professors during social events, a “Dedicated to Durham” workday, and a variety of faculty-led field trips. The week’s events were coordinated by the Office of Student Affairs.