Judge’s ruling may bolster new trial bid for man claiming innocence

Devonia Inman, a South Georgia man who is serving a life-without-parole sentence for a 1998 murder he says he didn’t commit. (Department of Corrections)
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Devonia Inman, a South Georgia man who is serving a life-without-parole sentence for a 1998 murder he says he didn’t commit. (Department of Corrections)

A man imprisoned almost 23 years for a South Georgia murder he insists he did not commit won a key ruling Monday that could bolster his chance to win a new trial.

Chattooga County Chief Superior Court Judge Kristina Cook Graham signed an order that says, in essence, she is under the assumption that Hercules Brown — not Devonia Inman, the man convicted of the crime — is the actual killer.

Later, Graham wrapped up a one-day hearing by giving both the state and Inman’s lawyers time to file legal briefs. She is expected to rule in the coming months.

Two decades ago, a Cook County jury found Inman, 42, guilty for the 1998 murder of Donna Brown, a Taco Bell night manager who was slain in the restaurant’s parking lot. Her killer took about $1,700 of the day’s receipts from Brown after shooting her in the face.

On Monday, Tom Reilly, one of Inman’s new lawyers, told Graham his client received “a deeply flawed and unfair trial.” He said Inman “has been wrongfully imprisoned for almost 23 years for a murder he did not commit.”

Paula Smith of the state attorney general’s office told Graham that Inman’s new claims are being raised too late and are barred on procedural grounds. “Those should have been raised way back when,” she said.

In court filings, state attorneys contend Inman had assistance in the armed robbery and murder of Donna Brown.

Inman’s case, chronicled in Season 4 of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Breakdown podcast, is extraordinary. With no physical evidence tying him to the crime, he was convicted largely on the testimony of four key witnesses, three of whom have since recanted their testimony.

As for the fourth witness, Judge Buster McConnell, who presided over the 2001 trial, has said he didn’t believe that woman when she said she saw Inman in Brown’s car shortly after the killing.

Also noteworthy is that before the trial, Inman’s lawyers tried to call witnesses who were going to testify that Hercules Brown, who had worked at Taco Bell and was unrelated to the victim, had told them he committed the murder. But McConnell disallowed that testimony.

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 life without parole.

A decade after Inman’s trial, the Georgia Innocence Project was allowed to conduct DNA testing on a makeshift mask found in Donna Brown’s car after the killing. The GBI crime lab found a match: Hercules Brown.

The mask found in murder victim Donna Brown’s car. GBI crime lab tests determined that DNA found on the mask belonged to Hercules Brown, who was not charged in the case. (AJC file photo)
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The mask found in murder victim Donna Brown’s car. GBI crime lab tests determined that DNA found on the mask belonged to Hercules Brown, who was not charged in the case. (AJC file photo)

Inman’s lawyers filed a motion for a new trial, but McConnell declined to grant it.

Inman appealed that order, but in 2014 the Georgia Supreme Court declined to even consider it. Still, lawyers representing Inman filed a lawsuit asking for Inman’s conviction to be overturned because he is actually innocent.

Hercules Brown, who is serving a life-without-parole sentence for a double murder. (Georgia Department of Corrections)
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Hercules Brown, who is serving a life-without-parole sentence for a double murder. (Georgia Department of Corrections)

The attorney general’s office sought to get that suit dismissed. When Graham declined to do so, the state appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court. In another extraordinary development in the case, the high court not only allowed Graham’s decision to stand, two justices wrote concurring opinions questioning the ongoing imprisonment of Inman.

One of those justices, David Nahmias, said he regrets the state Supreme Court’s decision in 2014 declining to hear Inman’s appeal. With the new evidence, he wrote, “there is no doubt that a new trial would be very different than the one in which Inman was found guilty.”

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

ExploreListen to Season 4 of the AJC’s “Breakdown” podcast: "Murder Below the Gnat Line"

On Monday, Inman’s new lawyers produced a Sept. 28, 2000, police report that showed Hercules Brown was arrested for illegal gun and crack cocaine possession outside a supermarket in Adel, less than a mile away from the Taco Bell where Donna Brown was killed. Inside Hercules Brown’s car police found a homemade mask.

Brown would be released on bond from those charges and commit the double murder at Bennett’s Grocery a few months later.

Reilly, one of Inman’s new lawyers working free of charge, contended Monday that the state withheld the September 2000 police report tying Brown to another homemade mask even though prosecutors knew the defense was trying to tie Brown to the Taco Bell killing.

Attorney Bud Siemon, who represented Inman years ago in his initial appeals, said he would have pursued the matter if he had only known about it. “It would have been a great issue,” said Siemon, one of two witnesses who testified at Monday’s hearing. “That would have made our argument much stronger.”

Last year, Graham signed an order allowing Inman’s new lawyers and state attorneys to take videoconferenced testimony of Brown on Dec. 7. But an official at the prison where Brown is incarcerated said he “absolutely refused” to come out of his cell and answer questions.

Inman’s lawyers then asked Graham to draw an “adverse inference” against Brown, finding he had incriminated himself in Donna Brown’s murder by refusing to be questioned about it. Over objections by state attorneys, Graham signed the order at the outset of Monday’s hearing.

“Judge Graham, in essence, said she is allowed to assume that Hercules’ refusal to answer questions reflects the fact he is guilty,” said Atlanta defense attorney Don Samuel, who has followed the case. “This may have tipped the balance.”

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 prior.

June 28, 2021 Judge holds hearing on lawsuit and is expected to rule in coming months.