“When I Saw Him I Knew It Was Real”: Devonia Inman Is Free After 23 Years Behind Bars

“When I Saw Him I Knew It Was Real”: Devonia Inman Is Free After 23 Years Behind Bars

Across from the Augusta State Medical Prison on Highway 10, the red Cadillac Escalade pulled up just before 4 p.m. Beaming in the passenger’s seat with his granddaughter on his lap, 43-year-old Devonia Inman waved to the people gathered at the side of the road, who cried and cheered as the car came to a stop. “Thank you, Jesus!” a man said as Inman got out and embraced one of his cousins. Inman’s father, David Ray, got out of the backseat and picked up his great-granddaughter as his son received hugs from the crowd. Ray wore a pinstriped suit and a face mask that read “Devonia.”

Inman had walked out of the prison moments earlier, on December 20. Only his parents and legal team had been allowed to meet him. Prison staff had ordered the rest of Inman’s relatives to leave, directing them across the road. The family had driven three hours to Augusta from Adel, in South Georgia, the last place Inman had ever known life as a free man before being arrested in 1998 for a murder he swore he did not commit.

Cars and trucks sped by as the group watched for signs of Inman. Andrekos Pickett, one of several cousins who had come from Adel, said the family had always hoped Inman would be cleared. “We knew this day was coming,” he said. “We just didn’t know it was gonna take this long.” Another cousin, Tamara Pickett, was emotional as she held up her phone to share the moment on Facebook Live. She had been so excited about Inman’s release that she had barely slept the night before. “I was a little girl, like 11, whenever this happened,” she said of the crime. Inman had been one of her favorite cousins; she said she followed him everywhere. “I used to write him all these letters,” she said. But after being transferred from prison to prison, he’d lost track of them. “He said, I’ve been so many places now I don’t know where they are.”

The days and hours leading up to that moment had been fraught with uncertainty. After a Georgia judge overturned his conviction on November 16, the Georgia Attorney General’s Office stayed silent on whether it would appeal until hours before the deadline on December 16. Although the Cook County District Attorney’s Office swiftly announced that it would not seek a retrial, the timing and location of Inman’s release remained unclear even to his lawyers until hours before it happened, contingent on legal filings, paperwork, and the often arbitrary whims of the Georgia Department of Corrections.

Inman’s exoneration was the culmination of decades of work, first by the Georgia Innocence Project, which secured DNA evidence pointing to another suspect, and then by Jessica Cino, a former law professor at Georgia State University, who brought his case to the attention of the Atlanta law firm Troutman Pepper, which took it on pro bono. After spending almost his entire adult life behind bars, Inman now faces a long road to realizing a future that was derailed by his wrongful conviction. His release also leaves open the question of whether anyone will be held accountable for the murder that sent Inman to prison.

Standing in front of the Escalade as his supporters took photos, Inman looked both grateful and overwhelmed. His mother, Dinah, looked on with pride and relief. “My heart was racing,” she said of the wait to see her son. “But when I saw him, then I knew it was real.”

Left: Members of Devonia Inman’s family await his release across the street from Augusta State Medical Prison on December 20, 2021. Right: Devonia Inman embraces Georgia attorney and longtime advocate Jessica Cino.Photo: Liliana Segura/The Intercept; Claire Reynolds

“Let Justice Be Done”

Inman’s case was the subject of “Murderville, Georgia,” a podcast and written series published by The Intercept in 2018. The investigation revealed how shoddy police work by local law enforcement and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation not only led to a wrongful conviction, but also left the real murderer free to kill again.

Inman was sentenced to life in prison for the September 19, 1998 murder of Donna Brown. Brown, a 43-year-old single mother, was the night manager of the Taco Bell in Adel, a small city not far from the Florida state line. She was shot in the face in the parking lot after work. The killer took a bank bag containing $1,700 that Brown was carrying, along with her car, which was abandoned at a shuttered Pizza Hut nearby. While neither the money nor the bag was ever found, a key piece of evidence was left in the passenger seat of Brown’s car: a homemade mask fashioned from a pair of gray sweatpants with eye holes cut out of it.

Neither the mask nor any other physical evidence tied Inman to the crime. Multiple witnesses who initially implicated Inman recanted their statements even before Inman was tried in 2001. Nevertheless, he was convicted and sent to prison.

Meanwhile, the murders in Adel continued, sending shockwaves through the city of about 5,000. In April 2000 — as Inman was in jail awaiting trial — a man named Shailesh Patel was beaten to death at home after closing shop at a nearby convenience store. His murder has never been solved. Later the same year, a beloved local shopkeeper, William Bennett, and his employee, Rebecca Browning, were bludgeoned to death in broad daylight inside Bennett’s store. A man named Hercules Brown (no relation to Donna Brown) was quickly arrested for the double murder and eventually pleaded guilty.

In fact, Hercules, who worked at the Taco Bell, had long been rumored to be Donna Brown’s real killer. Several people even said that Hercules had confessed to them; two said that Hercules confessed long before Inman was even tried.

A decade after Inman was convicted of Brown’s murder, DNA lifted from the mask left in her car was matched to Hercules. Yet the Georgia Attorney General’s Office fought tooth and nail to uphold Inman’s conviction. Neither Hercules’s proven violence nor the DNA evidence linking him to Donna Brown’s murder — a murder the state alleged was committed by a single perpetrator — was enough to impress the courts, which declined to intervene in Inman’s case.

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Evidence of cloth mask with DNA match to Hercules Brown.

Photo: GBI/Georgia Innocence Project

Inman was finally able to get back into court after the pro bono team from Troutman Pepper found additional evidence pointing to Hercules, which the lawyers alleged had been illegally withheld from the defense at trial. In 2019, Lookout Mountain Chief Judge Kristina Cook Graham ordered a hearing on the new evidence and on a claim that Inman had received ineffective representation at trial. The AG’s office tried to block this from happening, telling the Georgia Supreme Court that Inman was procedurally barred from raising these claims at all.

But where the Supreme Court had previously refused to review Inman’s case after the DNA evidence first came to light, this time they rejected the state’s position, paving the way for the hearing — and, ultimately, Inman’s freedom. In an extraordinary concurring opinion, the court’s then-presiding judge, David Nahmias, expressed deep regret over the court’s previous inaction.

“Of the multitude of cases in which a new trial has been denied, Inman’s case is the one that causes me the most concern that an innocent person remains convicted and sentenced to serve the rest of his life in prison,” wrote Nahmias, who is now the court’s chief judge. “Let justice be done.”

In the run-up to the hearing before Graham, Inman’s attorneys were given access to more than 15,000 pages of records belonging to his original trial lawyers. They were also given permission to interview Hercules Brown in prison. When the time came for that interview, however, Hercules refused to participate.

The hearing, which was repeatedly delayed by the pandemic, finally happened in June. It started off with a bang: Graham granted a motion by the defense requesting that an “adverse inference” be drawn from Hercules’s refusal to cooperate. In other words, she would officially consider Hercules’s silence as an indication that he was guilty of murdering Donna Brown. Although the Fifth Amendment protects against self-incrimination in a criminal proceeding, for the purpose of Inman’s appeal, which is considered a civil matter, such a conclusion was fair game.

“It is the State’s assessment that continuing to litigate this case is not in the interest of justice.”

The remainder of the hearing focused on the two ways that Inman’s rights had been violated. Troutman attorney Tom Reilly argued that the state had concealed evidence from the defense at Inman’s trial and that the lawyers who handled his trial, and the first appeal of his conviction, had failed to provide him adequate representation.

In November, Graham issued her ruling, overturning Inman’s conviction. “Under the circumstances of this extraordinary case and having carefully considered the evidence presented,” Graham concluded that the ways Inman’s trial and appeals played out “were fundamentally unfair and are unworthy of confidence in their outcome.”

Graham’s ruling left the attorney general’s office with a choice: drop its opposition or appeal the ruling back up to the Georgia Supreme Court. The office was given 30 days to make its decision. There was good reason to think it would appeal. The office spent years defending Inman’s conviction and arguing in court that he was legally barred from even attempting to challenge it.

But in reality, the AG had no meaningful choice: In its 2019 ruling, the Supreme Court made its position in the case clear and had implored the state to stand down and stop trying to block Inman’s access to justice. Still, with the holidays looming, the office dragged its feet, waiting until the last minute to notify Inman’s lawyers and the courts that it would not appeal.

That decision bounced the case back to Cook County, where Alapaha Judicial Circuit District Attorney Chase Studstill, would have to decide whether to drop the case or retry Inman. On December 20, Studstill asked for the case to be dismissed. In a late-morning order, the circuit’s Chief Judge Clayton Tomlinson agreed. “It is the State’s assessment that continuing to litigate this case is not in the interest of justice,” he wrote. Inman was released a few hours later.

Devonia Inman kisses his 3-year-old granddaughter Alona Jackson as he walks away from Augusta State Medical Prison after being released from custody after serving 23 years in prison for a wrongful conviction, Monday, Dec 20, 2021, in Grovetown, Ga. His charges were dismissed in a murder case. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Devonia Inman kisses his 3-year-old granddaughter Alona Jackson as he walks away from Augusta State Medical Prison after being released from custody after serving 23 years in prison for a wrongful conviction in Grovetown, Ga, on Dec 20, 2021.

Photo: Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP

Justice Delayed

The day after Inman walked out of prison, Studstill spoke to The Intercept over the phone. A former public defender who grew up in South Georgia, he said he was aware of the case well before he took office in May. He said he spent the next seven months getting up to speed on the case. “Each weekend, in any spare time I had, I spent looking at stuff from this case.”

Studstill pointed to a number of factors beyond the case itself that shaped his decision to facilitate Inman’s release. Foremost among them was Nahmias’s concurrence. “That is a very rare thing to see in the law is this judge almost saying, ‘Dang it, we had a chance to hear this and we decided not to. But now looking at it down the road, we probably should’ve heard this,’” he said. “I mean, that’s what we took from it.”

Nonetheless, Studstill said he had to decide if the evidence would warrant retrying Inman. Graham’s decision to grant the adverse inference against Hercules Brown caught his attention. “I knew when the adverse inference order was issued that I had an uphill battle if this office was going to retry,” he said. When Graham ruled that Inman’s rights had been violated at trial, he said that was “the final nail in the coffin.”

Studstill made clear that the media attention at the local and national level had also made an impact. He cited the “Murderville” podcast as raising the need to renew the efforts to solve the murder of Shailesh Patel, which the GBI has claimed to be investigating with no discernible results. “That’s a case I definitely want closure on,” he said. Although he would not comment on any specific actions he might be taking, he said that cold cases are a priority for him. “Those victims have yet to get their justice.”

Studstill said he was still weighing whether to charge Hercules with Donna Brown’s murder. “The one thing I will say is with Mr. Brown, I would have more of a charge to make a case on him if he weren’t sitting where he is today,” he said. “In other words, because he’s never getting out of prison, the necessity in trying to build a strong case against him isn’t as strong as if he were a free man.”

Asked whether he’d talked to Donna Brown’s family about Inman’s release or about the possibility of charging Hercules with her murder, Studstill said, “I don’t have a comment on that at this time.”

The Intercept tried to reach several members of Brown’s family but did not receive a response.

The Road Ahead

The road ahead for Inman is not an easy one. He’ll have to work to build a future for himself and face the challenge of renewing relationships damaged by his incarceration — including with his son, now a father himself, who was just a toddler when Inman was convicted. And he’ll have to navigate a world much different than the one he left when he was first locked up in 1998. He’ll have to find employment and his own place to live.

And he’ll have to do all of it without any help from the state of Georgia, which is one of 13 states that does not have a law providing compensation for the wrongly convicted. Instead, Georgia lawmakers have taken a piecemeal approach, passing individual bills aimed at compensating individual exonerees. In other words, Inman would have to find a state lawmaker willing to file a bill proposing that he be compensated and then wait to see if that bill would ever become law.

Given the state’s lack of a meaningful compensation scheme, the Georgia Innocence Project this week started a MightyCause fundraising campaign for Inman, hoping that the public might pitch in where the state will not. Without a compensation package, “exonerees like Devonia can be left on their own,” the GIP notes. “With that in mind, this personal fundraiser is a way to help Devonia get back on his feet.”

After his release on Monday, Inman and his family drove back to Adel for a family celebration. Two days later, he would fly home to California with his parents to spend the holidays together for the first time in more than 23 years. Before they left Augusta, David Ray thanked everyone who played a role in his son’s release. “It’s like a dream come true. … My son’s coming home,” he said. “This is the best Christmas ever.”

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