Devonia Inman, at the Georgia State Prison in Reidsville, contends he was wrongly convicted of a 1998 murder in Cook County. (Georgia Department of Corrections)
Photo: Georgia Department of Corrections
Photo: Georgia Department of Corrections

Georgia judge: Inmate can keep fighting his conviction for 1998 murder

An inmate who contends DNA test results show he was wrongly convicted of a South Georgia murder can continue pursuing his bid to win a new trial, a state court judge has ruled.

In a ruling entered Monday, Chattooga County Superior Court Judge Kristina Cook Graham rejected the state’s request that she dismiss a lawsuit that seeks to overturn Devonia Inman’s murder conviction. Inman is now serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a 1998 murder and armed robbery in Adel.

Graham also said she will allow Inman’s lawyers to take sworn testimony from Hercules Brown, the man implicated by the DNA tests.

Graham issued her ruling in a lawsuit filed by Inman’s lawyers at the Atlanta law firm Troutman Sanders early last year. 

“We are pleased that the court denied the state’s motion to dismiss and look forward to proceeding with discovery and a hearing on the merits of Mr. Inman’s claims,” Tom Reilly, one of Inman’s new lawyers, said.

During a 2001 trial, Inman was found guilty of the murder of Donna Brown, a 41-year-old single mom. The night manager of a Taco Bell, Brown was fatally shot in the eye at about 2 a.m. as she carried more than $1,700 of the day’s receipts to her car to be deposited at the bank. Neither the money pouch nor the murder weapon was ever recovered.

Inman’s case was chronicled in Season Four of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Breakdown podcast: “Murder Below the Gnat Line.”

Clockwise from top left: Devonia Inman, who is in prison for murder; Donna Brown, the woman he was convicted of killing; the mask that was discovered in Brown's car after the killer stole and then abandoned the vehicle; and the Taco Bell outside which Donna Brown was shot.
Photo: AJC collage / AJC file

Inman was convicted of murder with no forensic evidence linking him to the crime. A number of witnesses who initially provided highly damaging statements against Inman later recanted their testimony.

During Inman’s trial, his lawyers sought to present testimony from witnesses who would have said Hercules Brown had admitted to them he committed Donna Brown’s murder. (Hercules Brown, who also worked at Taco Bell, and Donna Brown were not related.) But Buster McConnell, the judge who oversaw the trial, would not allow the testimony because he said there was no other evidence corroborating those statements.

In 2011, however, DNA testing by the GBI of saliva from a homemade mask found inside Donna Brown’s car, which her killer used to drive away from the scene, was matched to Hercules Brown. By this time, Brown was serving his own life-without-parole sentence for killing two people during a botched robbery of an Adel grocery store in 2000.

Hercules Brown, who is serving a life-without-parole sentence for a double murder in Adel in 2000. (Georgia Department of Corrections)
Photo: Georgia Department of Corrections

Armed with the new DNA evidence, Inman asked for a new trial. But McConnell refused to grant it and the Georgia Supreme Court later declined to hear an appeal of McConnell’s decision.

In her order, Graham noted that Inman’s lawsuit includes a claim of actual innocence based on the argument Hercules Brown committed the crime for which Inman was convicted. She also noted that some information regarding Brown’s alleged involvement was not disclosed to the defense by state prosecutors.

For these reasons, Brown’s testimony is likely to be relevant to Inman’s claims, and for this reason his sworn testimony is warranted, Graham said.

The judge also allowed Inman’s new lawyers to take sworn testimony from public defender Melinda Ryals, one of the two lawyers who represented Inman at his trial. Graham also found “exceptional circumstances” that justify Inman’s new lawyers being able to review files about the case in the Cook County district attorney’s office, which has stood by the guilty verdict handed down 18 years ago.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.