Posted: April 11th, 2012 | By: Tim Clodfeter
In 1984, the murder of Deborah Sykes shocked Winston-Salem. She was a 26-year-old copy editor at The Sentinel, then the city’s afternoon newspaper. She was on her way to work on the morning of Aug. 10, 1984, when she was raped and stabbed.
That case, including the conviction and later acquittal of Darryl Hunt, is the subject of “On Her Own,” the latest episode of the crime documentary series “Cold Blood.” It first aired April 11 on Investigation Discovery.
Using interviews, file footage, forensic evidence and dramatic re-enactments, the hourlong program examines the facts behind the case, from the moments when Sykes’ co-workers became concerned about her absence to the subsequent police investigation.
Among the people interviewed are Howard Cross, a close friend of Sykes’; Darryl Hunt; Mark Rabil, Hunt’s defense attorney and the director of Wake Forest law school’s Innocence and Justice Clinic; Sgt. Chuck Byrom, who is retired from the Winston-Salem Police Department; Phoebe Zerwick, a former reporter at the Winston-Salem Journal who wrote about the eventual exoneration of Hunt; and Regina Lane, a rape survivor whose case helped lead to a new suspect.
“Whenever we went back to talk to everybody there, it still evokes strong feelings in people,” said Jacqueline Bynon, the executive producer of “Cold Blood.” “We’ve done 59 murders, and this is one that sticks with you, because there are so many layers.”
Cross says at the conclusion of the documentary, “Debbie Sykes was a wonderful young woman whose life was just getting going. She needed to see justice done.”
Sykes was married and living in Mooresville with her parents while she and her husband were looking for a house in Winston-Salem. She had just arrived in July from the Chattanooga News-Free Press in Tennessee.
The show has a research team that looks for interesting stories.
“The Deborah Sykes one got our attention because, if you’re a female, it’s a scenario millions of females do every morning: You go to work. You park your car — maybe a little bit away to save a few bucks. … And it was in the clear light of day (about 6 a.m.). There is something really spooky about that,” Bynon said.
Sykes’ body was found on a grassy slope off West End Boulevard, across the street from Crystal Towers, a high-rise apartment building for senior citizens about 1½ blocks from the newspaper offices at Fifth and Marshall streets where she worked.
“The other thing that got our attention was the way the crime was solved. There were so many mistaken identities,” Bynon said.
Hunt, 46, was convicted of first-degree murder in Sykes’ killing and served 18 years in prison before DNA evidence led to another suspect, Williard Brown, who confessed.
DNA testing first excluded Hunt in 1994 as the rapist, but Judge Melzer Morgan of Forsyth Superior Court ruled that the new evidence would not have made enough of a difference that a jury might have acquitted Hunt.
The Winston-Salem Journal published a series of articles in 2003 about Hunt’s case that raised questions about his conviction. A lab again tested DNA samples in the case, leading investigators to identify Brown.
Zerwick, who worked on the Journal series, said she was impressed with the amount of research the film crew had done when they came to interview her last year.
“I thought the (documentary) sounded as though it would take an interesting approach, and I think it’s an important story,” Zerwick said. “I want the story to have as wide an audience as possible.”
The production team came to Winston-Salem in late summer and early fall of 2011 to conduct interviews and shoot footage. But out of respect, they shot some scenes — including re-enactments of the crime scene — elsewhere. Sensitive viewers should be warned that the re-enactment, and a later sequence involving Regina Lane, have disturbing content.
“We try to show the horror without being too explicit,” Bynon said. “We try to create the emotion rather than just be gratuitous.”
The mission of the show, Bynon said, is “to tell the story of a murder through the eyes of the investigators and the people affected by the murder.”
“I can tell you the facts,” she said, “but one of the things we try to do is also give the emotion that goes behind it. … Murder doesn’t just take away a life. It takes away so many other lives, as well.”
There is a standard disclaimer at the beginning of each episode stating that “certain names, images and details have been changed.”
But in this case, Bynon said, the producers didn’t make any changes. “There was no need to,” she said. “The story we tell is, to the best of our ability, the story that happened.”