A man convicted of murder in South Georgia is innocent and should have a new trial because of spectacular failures by the criminal justice system before, during and after his trial, a court motion filed this week contends.
The filing was on behalf of Devonia Inman of Adel, who is serving a life-without-parole sentence for the murder of a Taco Bell night manager in the restaurant’s parking lot in 1998. Inman previously lost a number of appeals, even though DNA evidence discovered years after his trial strongly suggests another man committed the murder.
“We feel there have been a number of very serious constitutional violations of Mr. Inman’s rights,” Atlanta lawyer Tom Reilly said Wednesday. “And we believe any reasonable juror looking at the totality of the evidence would have a reasonable doubt he committed this crime.”
Reilly is one of five Troutman Sanders lawyers providing pro bono representation for Inman. Their petition — a writ of habeas corpus — maintains Inman’s case “is a stain on the criminal justice system of our great state.”
In a statement, District Attorney Dick Perryman said, “I continue to stand by the verdict handed down by the Cook County jury.”
Inman’s case was chronicled last year in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s podcast, Breakdown: “Murder Below the Gnat Line,” and Inman’s new court filing cites a number of discoveries aired during the podcast’s six episodes.
Donna Brown, a 41-year-old single mom, was shot in the eye at about 2 a.m. as she carried more than $1,700 in cash toward her car, to be deposited at the bank. Neither the money pouch nor the murder weapon was ever recovered. In fact, no physical evidence tied Inman to the crime.
To convict Inman, prosecutors largely relied upon: a newspaper delivery woman who testified she saw Inman driving Brown’s car shortly after the shooting; a jailhouse snitch who said Inman told him he killed Brown; a woman who said she saw Inman hiding near the Taco Bell before the shooting; and a woman who said she saw Inman with a lot of cash the morning after the murder.
All but one of those witnesses, newspaper vendor Virginia Tatem, later recanted their statements. Lee Grimes, who also delivered papers and was standing next to Tatem the night of the murder, has said there is no way Tatem saw what she said she saw. In an interview last year with the AJC, Tatem acknowledged receiving $5,000 in reward money but stood by her testimony.
Shortly after Brown’s murder, police found her car parked less than a mile away from the Taco Bell. After the car was returned the car to Brown’s relatives, they said they’d found a homemade mask inside the vehicle. During the trial, a prosecutor held up that mask and said Inman didn’t need to kill Brown because she wouldn’t have been able to identify him.
At the trial, Inman’s lawyers tried to present witnesses who would have said Hercules Brown, who worked at the Taco Bell with Donna Brown but was not related to her, told them he committed the murder. But the trial judge disallowed any testimony about Brown’s alleged confession, saying he didn’t believe the witnesses.
A year after the Taco Bell killing, and before Inman stood trial, Brown was seen entering an Adel grocery store with a gun under his shirt. During Brown’s subsequent arrest, police found a makeshift mask in the trunk of his car.
Days later, Brown and another man entered Bennett’s Grocery in Adel, where the store’s owner and cook were beaten to death with a baseball bat during an armed robbery. Brown later pleaded guilty in those murders.
Years after Inman’s trial, lawyers for the Georgia Innocence Project were allowed to conduct a DNA test on the mask found inside Donna Brown’s car. The GBI crime lab found a match: Hercules Brown.
Based on this revelation, Inman’s lawyers asked for a new trial. But the same judge who presided over Inman’s trial denied his request.
Inman’s new motion asks a state court judge to overturn the convictions on several grounds. Among them: a claim that he is actually innocent because Hercules Brown is the real killer. He also asserts prosecutorial misconduct.
The petition says Inman’s new lawyers recently interviewed a woman who took over Donna Brown’s job at Taco Bell and who said Hercules Brown told her he had done something “bad,” the petition said. The woman also said he asked her to help him pull off an inside robbery of the restaurant, an offer she said she refused.
Brown’s behavior became so alarming the woman reported it to Adel police and the GBI, the motion said, adding that she feared Brown had committed the armed robbery and murder and might do the same thing to her.
The woman’s report was never disclosed to Inman’s defense team, the petition said. If it had been turned over and presented at trial, it might have led Inman’s jury to reach a different verdict, the motion said.
Jessica Gabel Cino, associate dean of Georgia State’s law school, has long maintained Inman is innocent and has recruited lawyers to work on his behalf.
“All along, he’s only wanted a court to take an objective look at this case because the glaring injustice is rampant throughout every phase,” Cino said. “This (petition) is his best shot at that.”
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