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Devonia Inman

Other Georgia Exonerations
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/Devonia_Inman.JPG
At about 2 a.m. on September 19, 1998, 40-year-old Donna Brown was robbed and fatally shot as she left her job at a Taco Bell restaurant in Adel, Georgia. She was carrying $1,732 in cash that she was going to deposit at a bank.

A single mother with a seven-year-old son, Brown had just completed her second day on the job.

Her car was taken and later found abandoned in a parking lot of a Pizza Hut restaurant. In the car was a mask that had been fashioned from the leg of a pair of sweatpants with two eyeholes cut in it. The mask was not collected as evidence until after the car had been turned over to members of Brown’s family, who reported finding it.

Several days later, 20-year-old Devonia Inman became a suspect in the crime when Marquetta Thomas told police that Inman came to her home with a lot of cash and bloody clothing on the night of the crime. Thomas was the older sister of Inman’s girlfriend, and Inman and Thomas’s sister had a relationship that was described as volatile. By that time, Inman had been arrested for an unrelated charge and so he was held in custody on that case while the investigation of Brown’s murder continued.

LarRisha Chapman, an employee of the Taco Bell who left early that night, initially told police she didn’t see anything. But about a month after the crime, she said that when she left, she saw Inman hiding in bushes outside the restaurant. She said she heard his voice and recognized it as Inman’s voice.

Shortly after a $5,000 reward was offered for information, Virginia Tatem, a newspaper carrier, came forward. She told police she was waiting for the newspapers that she would deliver to homes when she saw Brown’s car drive past so quickly it fishtailed. She viewed a photographic lineup and selected Inman as the driver of the car.

On January 11, 1999, a Cook County grand jury indicted Inman on charges of capital murder, armed robbery, theft, and illegal possession of a firearm. The Alapaha Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office said it would seek the death penalty.

On June 11, 2001, Inman went to trial in the Superior Court for the Alapaha Judicial Circuit. Thomas and Chapman both recanted their testimony implicating Inman. Both said police pressured them and that their initial statements were false.

Tatem identified Inman as the driver of Brown’s car. Kwame Spaulding, who had been incarcerated in the same jail cell with Inman, testified that Inman admitted to him that he had robbed and killed Brown. Spaulding testified after the prosecution assured him that they would explore favorable treatment for him on his own charges in return for his testimony.

The defense sought to present witnesses who would implicate Hercules Brown (no relation to Donna Brown), who was an employee of the Taco Bell. The witnesses, according to the defense, said that Brown had planned for months to rob the restaurant and that he had confessed to them that he robbed and killed Donna Brown.

The trial judge, however, excluded the evidence. The judge ruled that the witnesses were insufficiently reliable to overcome the hearsay rule. The judge did say that he would have allowed the evidence if there was any independent evidence linking Hercules Brown to the crime. The prosecution objected to any mention of Hercules Brown during the trial, arguing that no evidence connected him to the crime.

On June 25, 2001, the jury convicted Inman of capital murder, armed robbery, theft, and illegal possession of a firearm. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In 2006, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld Inman’s convictions. The court ruled that the exclusion of the evidence about Hercules Brown was proper.

Ultimately, Inman obtained assistance from the Georgia Innocence Project as well as from Georgia State University Law School professor Jessie Gabel Cino and her students. In 2010, a request for DNA testing of the mask recovered in Donna Brown’s car was granted. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation identified one DNA profile from the mask—that of Hercules Brown.

In 2014, a hearing was held on a motion for a new trial based on the test results. The motion was denied. In December 2014, the Georgia Supreme Court denied Inman’s request for a discretionary appeal of that denial.

In January 2018, Inman filed a state law habeas petition for a new trial. By that time, his case had become the subject of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper’s podcast “Breakdown,” and his legal team had grown to include a team of lawyers from the Atlanta office of Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders LLP, including Tom Reilly, Tiffany Bracewell, Kasia Hebda, and Alan Long. The petition noted that Spaulding, the jailhouse informant, had recanted his testimony, saying that Inman never confessed to the crime.

In addition, the legal team had uncovered arrest reports for Hercules Brown from September 2000—two years after the murder and several months before Inman’s trial. The reports showed that Brown had been arrested in Adel with a gun, drugs, and a black homemade mask similar to the mask found in Brown’s car. Moreover, Brown subsequently had been convicted and sentenced to life in prison for a double murder at a grocery store in Adel.

The Georgia Attorney General’s office opposed the motion and asked Circuit Chief Judge Kristina Cook Graham to dismiss the petition without a hearing. That was denied. Judge Graham ruled Inman was entitled to a hearing. The Attorney General’s office sought permission from the Georgia Supreme Court to file an appeal.

In 2018, The Intercept, an online news organization, aired an eight-part podcast, “Murderville,” highlighting Inman’s case. In 2019, the George Supreme Court denied the request to appeal. Then-Presiding Justice David Nahmias and then-Chief Justice Harold Melton wrote separate opinions urging the Attorney General to stop defending Inman’s conviction.

Justice Nahmias wrote that he regretted that the Supreme Court had declined to hear Inman’s appeal in 2014. The court could not change what it had done, Justice Nahmias wrote, but “Prosecutors … may always exercise their discretion to seek justice—to do the right thing. Everyone involved in our criminal justice system should dread the conviction and incarceration of innocent people…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.”

The Attorney General did not stop contesting the case. In June 2021, Judge Graham held a hearing and Inman’s legal team presented the evidence of the recantation and the withheld police reports, as well as the DNA test results.

In November 2021, Judge Graham vacated Inman’s convictions and ordered a new trial. Judge Graham ruled that the prosecution failed to disclose the Hercules Brown arrest reports and that the reports would have been critical evidence in Inman’s defense. The judge also ruled that Inman’s trial defense lawyer, Melinda Ryals, had become aware of the arrest reports after Inman was convicted. However, Ryals never disclosed the existence of the reports to the court or to any of Inman’s legal team. The reports were found in 2019 when the court ordered that her files be turned over as part of the habeas proceeding.

Judge Graham ruled that the “trial and post-conviction proceedings against Mr. Inman were fundamentally unfair and are unworthy of confidence in their outcome.”

On December 16, 2021, the Attorney General decided not to appeal the ruling. The case was then remanded back to Superior Court. Alapaha Judicial Circuit District Attorney Chase Studstill moved to dismiss the charges. On December 20, Chief Judge Clayton Tomlinson granted the motion.

Inman was released, more than 20 years after his conviction.

Georgia Innocence Project Director Clare Gilbert declared, “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 convictions.”

Gilbert added, “Moving forward, Georgia’s ethics rule for prosecutors…needs to track national guidelines, which would require prosecutors to attempt to remedy clear innocence cases like Devonia Inman’s.”

Troutman attorney Thomas Reilly said, “I’m just as happy as I can be for Devonia and his family and that this day has finally arrived. It’s long overdue, but it’s finally here.”

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 1/3/2022
Last Updated: 1/3/2022
State:Georgia
County:Cook
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Theft, Gun Possession or Sale
Reported Crime Date:1998
Convicted:2001
Exonerated:2021
Sentence:Life
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:20
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*