Darryl Hunt, the center of a simmering racial controversy in Winston-Salem for the past five years, was found not guilty of murder Friday.
Hunt - whose supporters have insisted he has been a victim of racism and malicious prosecution since his arrest in 1984 - clenched his fists and pounded them gently on his knees when Superior Court Judge Julius Rousseau read the verdict at about 10:40 a.m.``God really showed his hand; he really delivered justice,' said 24-year-old Hunt, who is black, outside the courtroom. ``I was confident from the outset that God would deliver us from this injustice.'
The all-white jury of seven women and five men deliberated for about three hours before finding Hunt, who did not testify, not guilty of second-degree murder in connection with the 1983 beating death of Arthur Wilson, a 57-year-old Winston-Salem construction worker who was black.
The Wilson charge was one of two murder charges against Hunt that North Carolina appellate courts overturned last year. The second murder charge in an unrelated case is still pending.
Hunt was an unknown, unemployed teenager with a petty criminal record prior to his arrest and ultimate first-degree murder conviction in the controversial case surrounding the 1984 rape and stabbing death of Deborah Sykes, a Winston-Salem newspaper copy editor who was white.
Since then, he has attracted the support of scores of religious leaders and residents in Winston-Salem's black community who rallied around Hunt's cause. They have fought to make Hunt a symbol of what they see as racial injustice.
Hunt, who spent five years in prison before getting out on bond last November, has converted to Islam. He now dresses in fine clothes, reads constantly and rarely speaks publicly without mentioning his faith.
When the verdict was announced Friday, his supporters in the audience applauded, cheered and wept.
``Oh, thank the Lord!' cried Mattie Mitchell, who attended the trial and whose son, Sammy Mitchell, was convicted of second-degree murder in 1986 in the case in which Hunt was acquitted.
The Rev. John Mendez, co-chairman of the Darryl Hunt Defense Fund, arrived in Newton too late to hear the verdict. When informed, he shrieked, leaped in the air and then slapped palms with Winston-Salem Alderman Nelson Malloy, both of whom attended the weeklong trial.
Hunt's attorneys and supporters wanted the case moved away from Forsyth County because of the vast publicity Hunt has received there. But they feared he may not get a fair trial in rural Catawba County, whose black population is less than one-third of that in Forsyth.
Defense attorney James Ferguson, who is black, said the verdict ``restored some of my faith in the criminal justice system' because it appeared race did not play a role in the decision even though the victim, the defendant and all the key witnesses were black.
Mendez added, ``We're elated, but at the same time, we're disturbed by the (Winston-Salem) police conspiring with murderers and drug addicts to create a case to condemn an innocent man.'
The key prosecution evidence against Hunt was offered by three admitted female alcoholics who testified that they saw Hunt with Sammy Mitchell and Merritt Drayton when Mitchell struck Wilson on the back of the head with an ax handle. Wilson was attacked and robbed after leaving an illegal drink house.
Drayton, who pleaded guilty to his role in the slaying and has been convicted of two other homicides, also testified against Hunt, but admitted to lying many times in the past about the case. Although witnesses testified they saw Hunt kick Wilson, there was little evidence presented that indicated Hunt had anything to do with Wilson's death.
Hunt was originally charged and convicted of second-degree murder in 1986 in Wilson's death while he was in prison for the Sykes murder. That case now looms on the horizon.
H. Dean Bowman, the Surry County district attorney who will prosecute Hunt in the Sykes case, said he does not believe Hunt's acquittal changes his case at all, adding that a trial date should be set within a few weeks.