A man who contends he was wrongly convicted of a South Georgia murder appeared to clear an important hurdle Wednesday when a judge declined to grant the state’s motion to dismiss his new claims.
After an hours-long hearing, Chattooga County Superior Court Judge Kristina Cook Graham said she thought the state’s request was premature. Graham said she will now decide whether lawyers for Devonia Inman can take sworn testimony of the man they say was the actual killer and a man who recanted his testimony at trial when he said Inman confessed to the murder.
Inman is serving a life-without-parole sentence for the 1998 murder of Donna Brown, the night manager of a Taco Bell in Adel. She died of a gunshot to her face in the early morning hours as she carried more than $1,700 of the day’s receipts out of the restaurant on her way to deposit them at the bank.
Inman's case was chronicled last year in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's podcast: "Breakdown: Murder Below the Gnat Line." He is now being represented pro bono by lawyers from the Atlanta law firm Troutman Sanders, who are trying to win him a new trial.
At the 2001 trial, prosecutors presented no physical evidence that tied Inman to the crime. Instead, they relied on testimony from a newspaper delivery woman who said she saw Inman driving Brown's car shortly after the shooting. They also heard from a jailhouse informant who said Inman told him he killed Brown, but who later said he was coerced into saying so. And they called upon a friend of Inman's who initially said she saw Inman with a lot of cash the morning after the killing, but she also recanted that statement.
During the trial, Inman’s defense lawyers tried to present testimony from witnesses who said Hercules Brown, who was not related to the victim, told them he was the one who committed the murder. But the trial judge did not let the jury hear that testimony, after deciding there was no evidence to corroborate such claims.
Years later, DNA testing was allowed to see whether it could be determined who might have been wearing a homemade mask that was found inside Donna Brown's car, which police found abandoned about a mile away from the Taco Bell. The GBI crime lab matched the DNA on the mask to Hercules Brown.
With this in hand, Inman’s lawyers went to court again, saying this new evidence should get him a new trial. But the same judge who presided over the original trial ruled that the new DNA evidence was not enough to overturn Inman’s conviction.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Steven Rodham, a LaFayette lawyer representing the state, sought to downplay the DNA evidence.
“There were no eyewitnesses to the crime,” he said. “I don’t know where ‘the gunman was wearing the mask’ came from. There is no evidence that is true.”
But Tiffany Bracewell, one of Inman’s new lawyers, reminded Judge Graham what the district attorney told the jurors during his closing argument at trial: Inman didn’t have to be wearing a mask because Brown didn’t know him, but he shot her anyway.
As for Hercules Brown, he worked at Taco Bell, helping with closings, and he knew Donna Brown, Bracewell said. “He had good reason to wear a mask.”
About two years after Donna Brown’s murder, Hercules Brown and another man held up a family grocery store in Adel, leaving the scene with the cash register. The store’s owner and cook were found inside, beaten to death with a baseball bat. Hercules Brown, who was never arrested for Donna Brown’s murder, is serving a life-without-parole sentence for the grocery store killings.
On Wednesday, Bracewell said prosecutors hid evidence against Hercules Brown that they should have turned over to Inman’s trial lawyers. This included details of Brown’s arrest months before Inman’s trial and days before the grocery store killings. On that occasion, Brown was charged with trying to rob an Adel supermarket. During his arrest, police found a handgun and a makeshift mask in the trunk of his car.
Prosecutors also withheld a statement by another Taco Bell employee who told police that Brown told her he had done something “bad” and had asked her to help him pull off an inside robbery of the Taco Bell — a request she declined.
If Inman’s jurors knew all this at trial, they never would have convicted him of murder, Bracewell said. “If there is ever a description of miscarriage of justice in a criminal trial, this is it.”
But Rodham, the state attorney, said Inman’s new claims were filed years past the mandatory deadline for such a petition. They also included information Inman’s lawyers could have have uncovered long ago, he added.
“The law is what it is, like it or not,” Rodham said.
But Graham, who said she needed to pore over the voluminous case file, declined to dismiss Inman’s new claims.