Darryl Hunt had served 18 years of a life sentence for the death of Deborah Sykes.
Through two trials and several hearings over nearly two decades, his supporters had accused police and prosecutors of railroading Hunt with questionable witnesses despite the lack of physical evidence tying him to the crime. Then, last week, investigators looking into the case came up with a new DNA match — tying the crime to another man, Willard E. Brown, 43.
Police suspected Brown in the Sykes case early on after the victim in another downtown rape identified him. But investigators ruled him out because they believed he was in prison the day Sykes was killed as she walked to work at the now-closed Winston-Salem Sentinel.
Investigators learned last week, after a database search of DNA samples turned up Brown's name, that he had been released on parole two months before Sykes died.
Brown, already jailed for a probation violation, is now charged with murder, rape, kidnapping and armed robbery. He could face the death penalty if convicted.
Hunt, now 38, was released on unsecured bond of $250,000 Wednesday to the cheers of friends. The judge scheduled a Feb. 6 hearing to determine whether to throw out the murder conviction.
Hunt was first convicted in Sykes death in 1985, but he won a new trial after a city manager's report blasted the police department for shoddy work in the investigation and the State Bureau of Investigation began its own investigation.
At the second trial, in 1990, he was convicted again.
Even though DNA testing four years later excluded Hunt as the source of the semen collected from the crime scene, a judge denied Hunt's motion for a third trial, saying the DNA results didn't necessarily clear him of involvement.
Hunt continued to fight the conviction, and earlier this year, at the request of his attorneys, a new round of DNA testing was ordered to compare the Sykes sample against state and federal databases of DNA profiles taken from convicted felons. That testing turned up the match with Brown.