December 20, 2021
Devonia walked out of Augusta State Medical Prison and into the arms of family just in time to celebrate his first Christmas as a free man in more than two decades. His release comes one month after a superior court judge granted Devonia Inman’s petition for habeas corpus relief. With the Georgia Attorney General’s decision not to appeal, the Alapaha Judicial Circuit District Attorney quickly and successfully moved to dismiss all underlying charges against Devonia, officially exonerating him of the 1998 Taco Bell Murder.
“I spent 23 years behind bars for something I didn’t do,” said Devonia. “It took a really long time to fix, even though it was so clear I wasn’t guilty. I’m glad I get to finally go home, and I’m grateful to everyone who helped make that possible.”
Mistaken Eyewitness Identification
Possession of a Firearm
Counsel: Troutman Pepper
Cook County, Georgia
Cook County, GA | September 19, 1998
In the early morning hours of September 19th, 1998 the manager of a Taco Bell in Adel, GA was robbed and murdered in the restaurant parking lot. The killer stole $1,700 and the victim’s car. Police later found the car abandoned nearby with a distinctive homemade ski mask inside.
At Devonia’s death penalty trial in 2001, the State suggested that he wore the ski mask as he shot and killed the victim. Devonia’s attorneys tried to call witnesses to show that another man, Hercules Brown, had actually committed and admitted to the crime. As Devonia sat in jail for over two years awaiting trial, Brown apparently went on to violently assault two people in the community and kill two other people and he is now in prison. But the judge at Devonia’s trial refused to allow the jury to hear the testimony about Hercules, and the prosecutor asserted there was not “one scintilla of evidence” linking Hercules to the crime. Despite having an alibi and no physical or reliable evidence tying him to the crime, Devonia was convicted for armed robbery and malice murder. He was sentenced to life without parole, meaning he would die in prison.
The only evidence against Devonia came from witness testimony. Of the four critical State’s witnesses against Devonia, three have recanted their testimony saying they were pressured or coerced by police. The only witness who did not recant was paid $5,000 for her testimony -- testimony that was directly contradicted by another person who had been with her at the time of the crime.
Years after Devonia’s trial, Georgia Innocence Project secured DNA testing on the homemade ski mask that was found in the Taco Bell victim’s car.
Results of DNA testing performed on the perpetrator's mask.
There was only one person’s DNA on the mask: Hercules Brown’s.
After the DNA results implicated Hercules rather than Devonia in the Taco Bell Murder, GIP, in partnership with attorneys Knox Dobbins and Jason Stone from Eversheds Sutherland, sought a new trial for Devonia.
However, in 2014, Cook County Superior Court Judge Buster McConnell ruled that the new DNA evidence implicating Hercules Brown was not enough to entitle Devonia to a new trial. The Georgia Supreme Court then denied Devonia’s request to appeal Judge McConnell’s decision.
Judge McConnell’s decision meant that Devonia would remain wrongfully imprisoned – sentenced to die behind prison bars – and that no jury ever would hear that:
- The key witnesses who implicated Devonia recanted (save one incentivized and directly contradicted witness);
- Hercules Brown confessed to people that Brown committed the Taco Bell murder; or
- Hercules Brown’s DNA, and only his DNA, was found on the homemade ski mask recovered from the Taco Bell manager’s car.
To compound the injustice, it turns out that at the time of Devonia’s original trial, prosecutors possessed and withheld evidence linking Hercules Brown to the Taco Bell Murder, despite proclaiming that there was “not one scintilla” of such evidence. While Devonia was in jail awaiting trial, police arrested Brown on an attempted robbery and he had a homemade ski mask in his possession that was very similar to the distinctive homemade ski mask from the Taco Bell Murder.
In 2018, a legal team led by Tom Reilley and Tiffany Bracewell of Troutman Pepper, with GIP attorneys acting as consultants, filed a habeas corpus petition once again seeking freedom for Devonia. Georgia’s Attorney General sought to dismiss the habeas and keep Devonia in prison. When Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Kristina Cook Graham ruled that Devonia’s habeas could proceed, the AG tried to appeal her decision.
In September 2019, the Georgia Supreme Court denied the AG’s attempt to appeal. Additionally, then-Presiding Justice Nahmias and then-Chief Justice Melton issued extraordinary concurring opinions reminding prosecutors of their power to ensure justice is served and urging the Attorney General himself to personally review Inman’s case and determine whether justice was actually served by continuing to oppose Inman’s efforts for a new trial. “Let Justice be done,” Justice Nahmias said. You can learn more here on our blog.
Instead, the AG continued to fight the case for another two years. Following a June 2021 contested hearing, Judge Graham granted Inman’s habeas corpus petition. She determined that Inman’s constitutional rights were violated, including by the prosecution’s failure to disclose evidence suggesting Hercules Brown committed the crime. Each violation, according to Judge Graham, “demonstrates the fundamental unfairness of Mr. Inman’s trial, undermines the Court’s confidence in the outcome of the trial and related conviction, and justifies granting habeas corpus relief.”
Finally, on December 20th, 2021, twenty-three years after he was imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, almost eight years after a court first heard DNA evidence of his innocence, and two years after Georgia Supreme Court justices urged Georgia's Attorney General to "Let Justice Be Done," Devonia Inman was freed from prison and exonerated.
With this nightmare behind him, Inman plans to rejoin his family in California and begin the journey of readjusting and healing. Exoneree support services will be offered by the independent nonprofits After Innocence and the Northern California Innocence Project. And Inman will always be part of the GIP family and Georgia’s exoneree community. While Inman’s future is bright, there is still a long road ahead. Unfortunately, Georgia is one of only 13 states that does not currently have a statutory compensation law to provide financial relief for years lost to wrongful conviction. Without one, exonerees like Devonia Inman are left on their own, with virtually no support from the State, to rebuild their lives.
Devonia’s story of wrongful conviction is the subject of two podcasts: Breakdown: Murder Below the Gnat Line from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Murderville from The Intercept, and Sundance TV featured the case in the premiere episode of their true-crime series, “It Couldn’t Happen Here”.