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 is finally exonerated and free!
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.”
For over two decades Devonia has maintained his innocence, denying any involvement in the Taco Bell Murder. In 1998 the manager of an Adel, Georgia Taco Bell was robbed and shot in the parking lot of the restaurant. The killer stole $1,700 and the victim’s car. Police later found the car abandoned nearby with a distinctive homemade ski mask inside.
Georgia Innocence Project obtained DNA test results from that mask years after trial, which implicated a different man in the Taco Bell Murder and prompted GIP and others fight tirelessly for this day for over a decade. Attorneys from Troutman Pepper have represented Devonia since 2016, with GIP lawyers acting as consultants. The Troutman Pepper team is thrilled: “We are elated to see Devonia and his family finally obtain the justice that so many have fought for so long to secure,” they said. “We are privileged to have played a part in his long-overdue exoneration, and to work at a firm committed to critically important pro bono matters like this.”
At his death penalty trial in 2001, the State suggested that Devonia 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 Taco Bell Murder. To make matters worse, as Devonia sat in jail for over two years awaiting trial, Hercules Brown apparently went on to violently assault two people in the community and kill two others and is currently in prison for those crimes.
But Devonia’s trial judge refused to allow the jury to hear the testimony about Hercules Brown, and the prosecutor asserted there was not “one scintilla of evidence” linking Brown to the crime. Despite having an alibi and no physical or reliable evidence tying him to the Taco Bell Murder, Devonia was convicted for armed robbery and malice murder. He was sentenced to life without parole, meaning he would die in prison.
There was in fact considerable evidence linking Hercules Brown rather than Devonia to the crime, though not all of it was known to Devonia or his legal team at the time. Devonia would later learn that at the time of his trial the State actually withheld evidence connecting Hercules Brown to the crime. Years after the Taco Bell Murder, but before Devonia’s trial, police had stopped Hercules Brown as he was about to commit a robbery. In his car they found a homemade ski mask similar to the distinctive homemade ski mask used in the Taco Bell Murder. The jury that convicted Devonia, however, never heard about the mask found in Hercules Brown’s car because the prosecution never disclosed the police report describing the incident and mask which had been found.
Years after trial, Georgia Innocence Project took on Devonia’s case and secured DNA testing on the ski mask used in the Taco Bell Murder. The results showed that Hercules Brown’s DNA – and only his DNA – was on that mask.
In addition to the new DNA evidence- and further adding to the case for Devonia’s innocence- was the fact that of the four critical witnesses who originally implicated Devonia in the crime, three recanted their testimony at or after trial, saying they had been pressured or coerced by police. The only witness who did not recant was paid $5,000 for her testimony and only came forward with information more than a month after the crime, when a reward for information related to the crime had been advertised. Her testimony was directly contradicted by her co-worker who had been with her the night of the crime.
Yet, the State repeatedly blocked attempts to obtain justice for Devonia Inman over the years. First, the State subjected him to a death penalty trial, despite remarkably weak and unreliable evidence. The State withheld exculpatory evidence at trial and the judge refused to let Devonia fully present his alternate suspect defense. When post-trial DNA evidence revealed that Hercules Brown apparently committed the Taco Bell Murder, the prosecutor opposed a new trial for Devonia and the same trial judge sided with the prosecutor. When Devonia tried to appeal that decision, the Georgia Supreme Court wouldn’t let Devonia appeal. When the Georgia Supreme Court changed their mind and directly urged the Attorney General to “Let Justice be Done” in Devonia’s case, the AG declined and his office continued to fight the case for two more years.
“Despite so much compelling information showing that the State convicted the wrong man, it took a massive team effort that spanned almost a decade to correct this obvious injustice and free an innocent man from prison,” said Christina Cribbs, Senior Attorney from Georgia Innocence Project. “While we are grateful Devonia Inman is free and that District Attorney Studstill acted so quickly to exonerate Devonia after Georgia’s Attorney General stopped defending the conviction, it simply cannot and should not take so long for the State to correct wrongful and unjust convictions in Georgia.”
“The Georgia Attorney General’s decision to delay and deflect for two years in Devonia’s case is out of step with the positive trends we are seeing across Georgia and the nation. Prosecutors wield great power, and with that comes a great responsibility to do justice, not simply seek victory and defend convictions,” said Georgia Innocence Project Executive Director Clare Gilbert. “Moving forward, Georgia’s ethics rule for prosecutors, Rule 3.8, needs to track national guidelines by requiring prosecutors to attempt to remedy clear innocence cases like Devonia Inman’s.”
With this nightmare finally behind him, Devonia 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 Devonia will always be part of the GIP family and Georgia exoneree community.
While Devonia’s future is bright, there is still a long road ahead. Unfortunately, Georgia is one of 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.
With that in mind, GIP has set up a personal fundraiser as a way to help Inman and his family. All funds raised on this MightyCause fundraiser will go directly to Devonia Inman and are not tax-deductible.
Read the full press release here.