Forsyth County is far from the only place with an ugly history of Keystone Cop investigators and overzealous prosecutors. They are all over, but, unfortunately, in whatever town, hamlet or city, there is one constant: the targets of their wraths are young minority men.
The documentary “The Central Park Five” by acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns made its debut on PBS recently. It takes an unparalleled look at the miscarriage of justice New York City police and prosecutors inflicted on five teens – four black and one Latino.
A white woman was brutally raped – we know that nothing spurs cops to action quicker than that, especially when the perpetrators are men of color – and the cops questioned and coerced the teens until they started pointing fingers at one another. In the trials that followed, the prosecutors ignored red herrings (none of the teens’ DNA matched that found at the scene;none of them correctly described what the victim was wearing, etc). Their tunnel vision was focused on winning easy convictions.
The teens were found guilty and sent off to jail; the oldest among them, a 16-and-17-year-olds, were sent to infamous Rikers Island. Some were still serving their sentences in 2002, when Matias Reyes confessed to the crime while in jail on a separate charge. He committed the crime alone (his DNA was a match) and was a convicted rapist and murderer who had committed similar crimes against women at around the time he attacked the Central Park jogger; one of his crimes was in the same vicinity.
Years before and hundreds of miles away, Darryl Hunt went through a similar ordeal. A white woman was murdered and raped and police tripped over one another to put someone in the electric chair for it. So-called witnesses were coerced and had their words twisted. There was writing on the wall that Hunt was likely innocent, but cops and prosecutors don’t like to admit mistakes, even if not doing so means that innocent people go to jail or are put to death and the real culprits are allowed to roam the streets and wreak more havoc.
Willard E. Brown, the man who three decades later confessed to the crime that Hunt served nearly 20 years in prison for, had committed another heinous crime against a woman in the downtown area around the same time Deborah Sykes was raped and murdered. Cops were too busy convincing themselves that Hunt was their man to connect the dots.
We take you down this road to make this point. A group of local advocates are continuing their fight to win a new trial for Kalvin Michael Smith, who like those mentioned beforehand, is a black man who was charged and convicted of savagely assaulting a white woman. The Winston-Salem Police Department, it appears, employed the same tactics in this investigation as they did in Hunt’s case.
But even with their dodgy track-record, local law enforcement and prosecutors have been unable to admit to an all-out screw up in Smith’s case. His supporters have painstakingly advanced his case and kept it in the public eye.
They held a rally last week at Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office to urge him to drop his opposition to Smith having another day in court to prove his innocence.
Frankly, we are shocked by Cooper’s stance. He jumped through hoops to strike down former Durham DA Mike Nifong when he overzealously moved to charge three white Duke University lacrosse players with raping an African American woman. Can’t we get similar indignation from Cooper over the shoddy job done by the Forsyth County DA’s Office and cops in the Smith case?
Perhaps Cooper needs reminding that it wasn’t the tea-sipping Duke types that put him in office time and again, but folks who look like Smith.