A Georgia man who spent 23 years in prison for a crime he did not commit is now a free man – just in time for Christmas.
On Monday, December 20, Devonia Inman was released from Augusta State Medical Prison.
His release came one month after a superior court judge granted his petition for habeas corpus relief. The Alapaha Judicial Circuit District Attorney was quick to dismiss all remaining and underlying charges against Inman, officially exonerating him of the 1998 Taco Bell Murder.
For more than two decades, Inman has maintained his innocence, denying any involvement at all.
In 1998, the manager of an Adel, Georgia Taco Bell was robbed and shot in the parking lot of the restaurant. The killer stole $1,700 and the victim’s car. Police later found the car abandoned nearby with a distinctive homemade ski mask inside. District Attorney Bob Ellis was the prosecutor at the time. He was later sentenced to federal prison following a scandal over whether he exchanged sex for favors.
As reported by The Georgia Innocence Project:
At Inman’s death penalty trial in 2001, the State suggested that he wore the ski mask as he shot and killed the victim. Inman’s attorneys tried to call witnesses to present evidence that another man, Hercules Brown, had actually committed- and admitted to- the murder.
Even worse, as Inman sat in jail for over two years awaiting his trial, Hercules Brown violently assaulted two people in the community and killed two other people and is now in prison for life without parole.
But the judge at Inman’s trial refused to allow the jury to hear the testimony about Brown, and the prosecutor asserted there was not “one scintilla of evidence” linking Brown to the Taco Bell Murder.
Despite Inman’s alibi and the complete lack of physical evidence tying him to the crime, Inman was convicted of armed robbery and malice murder. He was sentenced to life without parole, meaning he would die in prison.
In fact, there was considerable evidence linking Brown rather than Inman to the crime, though not all of it was known to Inman at the time. Inman would later learn that at the time of his trial the State actually withheld evidence connecting Hercules Brown to the Taco Bell Murder.
While Inman was in jail awaiting trial, police had stopped Brown as he was about to commit a robbery, and in his car they found a homemade ski mask similar to the distinctive homemade ski mask used in the Taco Bell Murder.
The jury that convicted Inman never heard about the mask found in Brown’s car, however, because the prosecution failed to disclose the police report describing the mask. Additionally, years after trial, Georgia Innocence Project secured DNA testing on the ski mask used in the Taco Bell Murder. The results showed that Brown’s DNA – and only his DNA – was on that mask.
Furthermore, of the four critical witnesses against Inman, three recanted their testimony years ago, saying they were pressured or coerced by police. The one witness who did not recant was paid $5,000 for her purported eyewitness testimony – testimony that was directly contradicted by another person who had been with her at the time of the crime.
“I spent 23 years behind bars for something I didn’t do,” said Devonia Inman. “It took a really long time to fix, even though it was so clear I wasn’t guilty. I’m glad I get to finally go home, and I’m grateful to everyone who helped make that possible.”
Road to Exoneration
“Despite so much compelling information showing that the State convicted the wrong man, it took a massive team effort that spanned almost a decade to correct this obvious injustice and free an innocent man from prison,” said Christina Cribbs, Senior Attorney from Georgia Innocence Project. “It simply cannot and should not take so long for the State to correct wrongful and unjust convictions in Georgia.”
January 2014: After investigating the case and securing the DNA testing that revealed Hercules Brown’s DNA on the mask from the Taco Bell killing, Georgia Innocence Project, in partnership with attorneys from Eversheds Sutherland, sought a new trial for Inman.
Judge Buster McConnell – the same judge that presided over Inman’s original death penalty trial – heard the new trial motion. GIP and partners presented the new DNA evidence implicating Brown, as well as testimony from another trial witness who said police coerced him into testifying falsely against Inman. However, Judge McConnell denied the motion, ruling that the new evidence was insufficient to justify a new trial.
Inman then tried to appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court, but it declined to hear the appeal.
2016: GIP’s friends at the law firm Troutman Pepper agreed to take on Inman’s case as main counsel, with GIP lawyers remaining on as consultants.
January 2018: Troutman Pepper filed a habeas corpus petition on Inman’s behalf, arguing that he was actually innocent and that his constitutional rights were violated when, among other things, the State withheld information about the homemade ski mask found in Hercules Brown’s possession.
Georgia’s Attorney General fought to defend the conviction and keep Inman in prison. The AG asked Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Kristina Cook Graham, to dismiss Inman’s case without any hearing. Judge Graham denied the AG’s request and ruled that Inman was entitled to a hearing on the merits of his claims. The Attorney General then sought permission from the Georgia Supreme Court to appeal Judge Graham’s decision.
2019: The Georgia Supreme Court denied the AG’s request to appeal and, in an extraordinary move, then-Presiding Justice David Nahmias and then-Chief Justice Harold Melton each wrote separately to urge the Attorney General himself to exercise discretion to stop defending the apparently unjust conviction in Inman’s case. Justice Nahmias (who is now Chief Justice) wrote that he regrets that the Georgia Supreme Court declined to hear Inman’s appeal in 2014 and that the Supreme Court was unable to change that. Justice Nahmias wrote:
“Prosecutors, however, may always exercise their discretion to seek justice – to do the right thing. Everyone involved in our criminal justice system should dread the conviction and incarceration of innocent people…Of the multitude of cases in which a new trial has been denied, Inman’s case is the one that causes me the most concern that an innocent person remains convicted and sentenced to serve the rest of his life in prison…Let justice be done.”
Instead, the AG continued to fight the case for another two years. In June 2021, attorneys from Troutman Pepper presented the evidence of innocence and constitutional violations in a habeas hearing before Judge Graham. The AG argued again that Inman’s habeas petition should be denied.
Judge Graham disagreed with the AG and granted Inman’s habeas corpus petition, ordering the State to give him a new trial. She determined that Inman’s constitutional rights were violated, including by the prosecution’s failure to disclose evidence suggesting Hercules Brown committed the crime. Each violation, according to Judge Graham, “demonstrates the fundamental unfairness of Mr. Inman’s trial, undermines the Court’s confidence in the outcome of the trial and related conviction, and justifies granting habeas corpus relief.”
The AG waited out the 30-day appeal window, which closed on December 16, 2021, and ultimately decided not to appeal. With the Taco Bell Murder convictions now officially overturned, the case reverted to the local district attorney to decide whether to re-prosecute Inman, offer a plea deal, or dismiss the underlying charges. Alapaha Judicial Circuit Chase Studstill quickly filed a motion to dismiss the underlying charges, which Chief Judge Clayton Tomlinson granted Monday morning.
[More in depth coverage on the case can be found on The Georgia Innocence Project website]
Inman is currently represented by a team of lawyers from the Atlanta office of Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders LLP, including Tom Reilly, Tiffany Bracewell, Kasia Hebda, and Alan Long, who devoted over five years to his case free of charge.
The lawyers said, “We are elated to see Devonia and his family finally obtain the justice that so many have fought for so long to secure. We are privileged to have played a part in his long overdue exoneration, and to work at a firm committed to critically important pro bono matters like this.”
“The Georgia Attorney General’s decision to delay and deflect for two years in Devonia’s case is out of step with the positive trends we are seeing across Georgia and the nation. Prosecutors wield great power, and with that comes a great responsibility to do justice, not simply seek victory and defend convictions,” said Georgia Innocence Project Executive Director Clare Gilbert. “Moving forward, Georgia’s ethics rule for prosecutors, Rule 3.8, needs to track national guidelines, which would require prosecutors to attempt to remedy clear innocence cases like Devonia Inman’s.”
Twenty-three years after he was imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, almost eight years after a court first heard DNA evidence further supporting his innocence, and two years after Georgia Supreme Court Justices urged the AG to do justice in this case, Inman is finally free and officially exonerated.
The Georgia Innocence Project says Inman is headed to California with his family. Since Georgia is one of 13 states that does not have a statutory compensation law to offer financial relief when a conviction is determined to be wrongful, fundraisers and nonprofits will help Inman get back on his feet – specifically ‘After Innocence’ and the ‘Northern California Innocence Project.’ A personal fundraiser has also been set up as a way to help Inman and his family. All funds raised on this MightyCause fundraiser will go directly to Inman. They are not tax-deductible.