A 20-year prison term for a wrongful conviction is so outrageous it nearly defies understanding. For a decade, Stern and Sundberg followed the case of Darryl Hunt, an African-American who at 19 was charged with the 1984 rape-murder of Deborah Sykes, a white journalist in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The resulting documentary is the most riveting saga of miscarried justice since Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line.
Plagued by unreliable witnesses and sensational media coverage, Hunt’s first trial and subsequent conviction polarized the community along racial and class lines. After he lost a second trial on appeal, the filmmakers, not long out of college, were engaged by a private investigator to record a court hearing about DNA testing that could exonerate Hunt. When a white judge excluded that evidence and denied a third trial, Hunt’s attorney Mark Rabil insisted that if the defense could find the real murderer, Hunt would go free.
The movie unfolds like a mystery, introducing a large cast of characters through archival news reports, 16mm location footage filmed by William Rexer II (Prime), and contemporary digital interviews shot by John Foster (Sunday, Keane). A Klansman, a junkie prostitute and the original caller to 911 give fishy testimony; the defense obtains files prosecutors illegally withheld; and a local TV news reporter shows that today, as then, her emotions rule. As a chronicle of racism derailing the truth, this is essential, if disturbing, viewing.