Prosecutors withheld critical evidence at his trial

GROVETOWN — Devonia Inman, whose wrongful conviction led him to spend more than 23 years behind bars, walked out of prison Monday a free man.

Inman, 43, immediately embraced his mother and stepfather, Dinah and David Ray, after emerging from Augusta State Medical Prison. A few minutes later, surrounded by relatives, friends and members of his legal team, Inman was almost at a loss for words.

ExploreThe AJC’s coverage of Devonia Inman and his bid to be cleared in a 1998 Georgia murder

“I’m happy,” he said in a hushed voice. “It’s been a long time.”

His mother said she never thought the day would come. “I can breathe now,” Dinah Ray said. “For 23 years, I’ve felt like my life was on hold.”

Inman, who has always professed his innocence, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the 1998 murder of Donna Brown, a Taco Bell night manager in Adel. She was killed in the restaurant’s parking lot and robbed of about $1,700 of the day’s receipts.

But last month a North Georgia judge hearing Inman’s appeal threw out his conviction and ordered a new trial. The judge found that evidence withheld by prosecutors strongly supported Inman’s claims of innocence.

Explore‘Breakdown’ S04, Ep. 5: Devonia Inman gets a new day in court

Last week, the state Attorney General’s Office declined to appeal that order. And on Monday, Cook County Superior Court Chief Judge Clayton Tomlinson signed an order dismissing the case and ordering Inman released from custody “as soon as possible.” That happened hours later.

“It is the state’s assessment that continuing to litigate this case is not in the interest of justice,” said the order, prepared by District Attorney Chase Studstill, who was not in office when Inman was prosecuted two decades ago.

“Devonia and his family are the very definition of resilience,” said Atlanta lawyer Jessica Gabel Cino, who has been fighting to overturn Inman’s conviction since she was a Georgia State University law professor years ago. “They never gave up hope that one day he would be free, and his legal team never gave up on him.”

In recent years, the Atlanta law firm Troutman Pepper agreed to represent Inman free of charge. Inman’s release Monday is the culmination of work by a number of the firm’s lawyers on Inman’s behalf.

“I’m just as happy as I can be for Devonia and his family and that this day has finally arrived,” said Troutman partner Tom Reilly. “It’s long overdue, but it’s finally here.”

Combined ShapeCaption
Devonia Inman is embraced by his mother Dinah Ray as he walks away from Augusta State Medical Prison on Monday after being released from custody after serving 23 years in prison for a wrongful conviction. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Devonia Inman is embraced by his mother Dinah Ray as he walks away from Augusta State Medical Prison on Monday after being released from custody after serving 23 years in prison for a wrongful conviction. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Combined ShapeCaption
Devonia Inman is embraced by his mother Dinah Ray as he walks away from Augusta State Medical Prison on Monday after being released from custody after serving 23 years in prison for a wrongful conviction. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Inman’s case, chronicled in 2017 during Season 4 of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s “Breakdown” podcast, is extraordinary. He was convicted with no physical evidence tying him to the crime and largely due to the testimony of four key witnesses, three of whom later recanted what they said at trial.

At trial, the judge refused to let Inman’s lawyers present testimony of witnesses who would have said that another man, Hercules Brown, told them he had committed the murder. (Hercules Brown, who had worked at the Taco Bell, was not related to Donna Brown.)

A decade after Inman’s conviction, the Georgia Innocence Project found inside the clerk’s office the makeshift mask that prosecutors said was worn by Brown’s killer. The GBI crime lab tested the mask for DNA and found a match: Hercules Brown.

Inman’s lawyers then filed a motion for a new trial but, even with the new DNA evidence, a judge denied it. Inman’s lawyers appealed that decision but the Georgia Supreme Court declined to even hear it, allowing the murder conviction to stand.

Undeterred, Inman’s lawyers from Troutman Pepper filed yet another appeal, asking that Inman’s conviction be overturned on grounds he is actually innocent. The state Attorney General’s Office tried to get the latest appeal dismissed, but the state Supreme Court allowed it to proceed.

Combined ShapeCaption
Devonia Inman hugs his mother Dinah Ray after walking away from Augusta State Medical Prison after serving 23 years in prison for a wrongful conviction. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Devonia Inman hugs his mother Dinah Ray after walking away from Augusta State Medical Prison after serving 23 years in prison for a wrongful conviction. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Combined ShapeCaption
Devonia Inman hugs his mother Dinah Ray after walking away from Augusta State Medical Prison after serving 23 years in prison for a wrongful conviction. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

In that extraordinary decision, David Nahmias, now the court’s chief justice, said he regretted the court’s decision in 2014 not to hear Inman’s appeal.

Of the more than 1,500 murder cases that Nahmias said he had reviewed as a justice, Inman’s case is the one that caused him “the most concern that an innocent person remains convicted and sentenced to serve the rest of his life in prison.”

A month ago, Chattooga County Chief Judge Kristina Cook Graham granted Inman a new trial.

She found that prosecutors failed to turn over to Inman’s trial attorneys evidence that could have been critical to his defense. That was information about Hercules Brown’s arrest in September 2000 for illegal gun and crack cocaine possession outside an Adel supermarket.

Inside Brown’s car, police found a homemade mask similar to the one prosecutors said Inman wore while killing Donna Brown.

If information about the mask had been disclosed to Inman’s lawyers, it “would have been independent, reliable and admissible evidence tending to connect Hercules Brown to the murder, corroborating the defense’s theory of mistaken identity,” Graham wrote.

Brown and another man would kill two people during an armed robbery of Bennett’s Grocery in Adel months after Donna Brown’s killing. Hercules Brown later pleaded guilty to those murders and is serving a sentence of life without parole. He was never charged in the Taco Bell slaying of Donna Brown.

THE STORY SO FAR

Sept. 19, 1998: Night manager Donna Brown is shot and killed during an armed robbery outside the Taco Bell in Adel.

2001: Devonia Inman is convicted at trial of Brown’s murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

2011: The GBI crime lab finds DNA from saliva on a makeshift mask matches Hercules Brown, who worked at Taco Bell and was unrelated to the victim.

2014: The Georgia Supreme Court declines to hear Inman’s appeal after he was denied a new trial based on the DNA evidence.

2018: Inman’s new lawyers file a lawsuit seeking to overturn Inman’s conviction on grounds he is actually innocent. In response to the state’s motion to dismiss that lawsuit, the Georgia Supreme Court questions Inman’s continued incarceration, and one justice expresses regret that the high court refused to hear Inman’s appeal four years earlier.

November 2021: A North Georgia judge finds prosecutors withheld critical evidence at Inman’s trial and orders a new trial.

Dec. 20, 2021: Hours after Cook County prosecutors dismiss murder charges against Inman, he walks out of Augusta State Medical Prison a free man.