Darryl Hunt (search) left court a free man Friday, cleared by DNA tests (search) of a murder that sent him to prison for 18 years.

Hunt was convicted twice and imprisoned for the 1984 murder of Deborah Sykes, a copy editor at the now-defunct Winston-Salem Sentinel (search).

Hunt, 38, had been serving a life sentence but was released on bond Dec. 24, two days after DNA implicated another man in the crime.

"This is hard for me because ... for 20 years, I've tried to prove my innocence," he said after Superior Court Judge Anderson Cromer cleared him of all charges.

Turning to Sykes' mother, Evelyn Jefferson, Hunt said, "I feel the pain you've been through. ... I've lived with it every day."

Doug Sykes, the victim's husband, and Jefferson asked Cromer not to vacate the charge. They said they still believe Hunt had a role in her killing.

"I believe what you're about to do today is set free a guilty man who is responsible for my daughter's death," Jefferson said, crying.

But District Attorney Tom Keith said there was no basis to continue to hold Hunt.

Hunt left the courthouse surrounded by supporters.

"I've tried not to be angry or bitter. That's what helped me these 19 years," he said.

DNA testing requested by Hunt's attorneys last year led in a match with Willard E. Brown. Brown, 43, was charged in December with murder and other counts, and he confessed to Sykes' killing.

"It's our opinion that Willard Brown (search) committed the murder, committed the rape and he acted alone," Keith said.

The case has long been a racial issue in Winston-Salem; Sykes was white and Hunt is black. Through two trials and several hearings over nearly two decades, Hunt's supporters had accused police and prosecutors of railroading him with questionable witnesses and no physical evidence.

"All of us here in this room, in this community are victims," Cromer said. "Today we acknowledge that a mistake was made. We acknowledge that our system is not perfect."

At a celebration at a nearby church, Hunt said he'd ask Gov. Mike Easley for a pardon, and would seek compensation from the state.

"For me, the struggle continues right now," he said. "Whatever happened to me has happened before (and) will happen again if the people don't come together."