In so many post-conviction innocence cases the biggest hurdle we face comes from the State successfully arguing: “Innocence does not matter. You’re too late; you should have brought your claims earlier.” Too often, the criminal legal system denies justice in the interest of finality and maintaining the status quo. We are therefore thrilled to report that Devonia Inman has overcome that hurdle!
A superior court court judge in Chattooga County recently DENIED the State of Georgia’s motion to dismiss Devonia’s habeas corpus petition. The State had argued that Devonia’s claims were time-barred and procedurally defaulted. This win paves the way for Devonia to show that his convictions should be overturned based upon Brady violations, prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective assistance of counsel, and actual innocence. Devonia is represented in the habeas litigation by our friends Tom Reilly, Tiffany Bracewell, and Majda Muhic at Troutman Sanders. Devonia’s story of wrongful conviction is the subject of two podcasts: Breakdown, Season 4 from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Murderville from the Intercept.
In 2001, Devonia Inman was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the September 1998 armed robbery and murder of a Taco Bell manager in Adel, Georgia. There was no physical evidence linking Devonia to the crime, he had an alibi, and the only evidence against him at trial came from witnesses who recanted at or after trial and an incentivized eyewitness who received a $5,000 reward for her testimony — testimony that was directly disputed by another witness. Though there was considerable evidence that a man named Hercules Brown had actually committed the murder, Devonia’s trial judge would not allow Devonia to call witnesses who would testify that Hercules Brown confessed to killing the manager. The judge excluded the testimony after ruling that there was no independent evidence to corroborate the confessions.
Years after Devonia’s trial, that corroborating evidence was found. Georgia Innocence Project took on Devonia’s case and secured DNA testing on a homemade ski mask found underneath the seat in the victim car stolen during the robbery / murder. There was only one person’s DNA on the mask: Hercules Brown. (After the Taco Bell manager’s murder and before Devonia’s trial, police actually had found another homemade mask in Hercules Brown’s car following an attempted armed robbery, a fact prosecutors failed to share with Devonia Inman prior to trial. Hercules Brown is now serving life in prison without parole for murdering two more people roughly two years after the Taco Bell manager was killed. We have learned from many DNA exoneration cases that too often when police and prosecutors convict the wrong person, the actual perpetrator remains free to commit more crimes, as tragically appears to have happened here.)
Yet in 2014, Cook County Superior Court Judge Buster McConnell held the new DNA evidence implicating Hercules Brown — and corroborating Hercules Brown’s confessions — was not sufficient to entitle Devonia to a new trial. The Georgia Supreme Court then denied Devonia’s request to appeal Judge McConnell’s decision.
As a result, a jury deciding Devonia Inman’s fate would never hear about:
- the recanted testimony,
- or Hercules Brown’s confessions,
- or the ski mask with Hercules Brown’s DNA found under the driver’s seat of the Taco Bell manager’s stolen car,
- or that a similar homemade mask was subsequently found in Hercules Brown’s car following an attempted armed robbery.
Also as a result, a Devonia Inman came one huge step closer to dying in prison despite DNA and other evidence of his innocence.
Devonia now has a real opportunity to attain justice. The habeas court judge not only held that Devonia’s habeas claims can proceed on the merits. The judge also ordered additional discovery to help Devonia further develop his claims, including the right to take Hercules Brown’s deposition. Now Devonia will continue his fight to convince the courts that he wrongly convicted, his constitutional rights were violated, and his conviction should be overturned.
We’ll keep you posted on updates in this fascinating and tragic case. Here is an AJC news story on the recent development.