For nearly six years, supporters of Darryl Hunt have told anyone who would listen that he was a victim of racial injustice, falsely accused and convicted of two violent killings.
Last year, after Hunt had spent five years in prison, North Carolina appellate courts paid heed to a portion of those claims in overturning both murder convictions. Last week, a Catawba County jury went a step further, finding Hunt not guilty of one of those charges.``We finally got justice,' supporter Gail Burnette said after the verdict Friday. ``No matter what the color of the jury, they had a conscience, they had a heart, they had a mind of their own. And justice has been served.'
Hunt was acquitted of second-degree murder in the 1983 beating of Arthur Wilson, 57, a Winston-Salem construction worker. But Hunt's freedom isn't assured.
He faces trial and possible life imprisonment if convicted on a first-degree murder charge in the 1984 killing of Deborah Sykes, a Winston-Salem newspaper copy editor.
That case, which turned Hunt into a celebrated cause in the local black community, has created deep racial tensions in Winston-Salem likely to resurface when it comes to trial.
The Rev. John Mendez, co-chairman of the Darryl Hunt Defense Fund, said in the Wilson case, it was a black-on-black crime with the victim, the defendant and all the key witnesses black. The jury was all-white.
Sykes, however, was a white woman who was raped and killed, allegedly by a black man. Mendez said this could prejudice a jury in a way the Wilson case would not - especially if all the jurors are white.
Adam Stein, one of Hunt's two court-appointed attorneys, said the acquittal last week provides a much-welcome boost to the defense team as it prepares for the Sykes case. Stein and James Ferguson defended Hunt when he was convicted in 1986 in the Wilson case, and they successfully guided Hunt's appeals in that and the Sykes case.
Now, Stein said, not only has their morale been heightened, but also Hunt will enter the Sykes trial not guilty of any violent crime. No trial date has been set.
``We have always been in the unusual position of needing to win one case in order to have a chance of winning the other,' Stein said. ``Dean Bowman really wanted a guilty verdict. He wanted Darryl Hunt guilty of a murder charge. And that would've made it that much harder for us.'
H. Dean Bowman is the Surry district attorney who will prosecute Hunt in the Sykes case because of a conflict of interest in the Forsyth district attorney's office. He attended much of last week's trial, but said little.
Reached after the verdict, Bowman said he doesn't think the acquittal affects his case.
``The evidence in our case is what it is,' he said. ``The two cases are not related.'
But Bowman acknowledged that the acquittal frees Hunt to testify without fear that his credibility will be attacked because of a previous murder conviction.
Hunt did not testify in the Wilson case. Ferguson explained that he wanted to keep the jury focused on the prosecution's evidence, which he deemed not credible, and to keep Hunt from ``being dragged through the mud and the mire.'
Also, in the Wilson case, Hunt was charged nearly three years after the crime - while in prison for the Sykes conviction. Hunt told his attorneys he simply did not remember where he was in the early morning of Sept. 17, 1983, when Wilson was beaten to death outside an illegal nightclub.
But in the 1985 Sykes trial, Hunt did testify, saying he was elsewhere when Sykes was raped and stabbed to death on her way to work. Because Sammy Mitchell, one of Hunt's alibi witnesses in 1985, recently was indicted on a murder charge in Sykes' death, Hunt might be compelled to tell his story again to a jury.
Either way, Hunt's supporters are gearing up for another fight.
``We would like the Sykes charges dropped,' Mendez said. ``If not, we're going to go to win. Our lawyers did a fantastic job in the Wilson case. But I think it was the moral courage and power of the people who had an abiding faith in God and the truth that was a major factor. And we're ready to pull that together again.'