By Ava Schwartzapfel, Julia Urquizo and Jake Wylie
AUGUSTA, GA— Devonia Inman—23 years later—has been released from prison and a life sentence after he was found to be not involved in the infamous 1998 Taco Bell Murder.
Devonia had been serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for charges of murder and armed robbery after the manager at a Taco Bell in Adel, Georgia, was shot and killed in the parking lot. The attacker proceeded to rob the store and drive away in the deceased manager’s vehicle.
For nearly nine years, Inman’s lawyers, among others, have been presenting the state with evidence that Inman was not the offender in this case. Two years ago, the Supreme Court Justices of Georgia went so far as to “urge” the Attorney General to bring justice to the People, meaning release Inman.
The Georgia Innocence Project (GIP) and Troutman Pepper, the national law firm that represented Inman free of charge for the last five years, published a statement explaining the long journey that Inman and his team have been through—going back to 1998.
“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,” explained Christina Cribbs, a Senior Attorney at GIP. “It simply cannot and should not take so long for the State to correct wrongful and unjust convictions in Georgia.”
Inman’s exoneration comes a month after a superior court judge approved Inman’s petition for habeas corpus relief.
“I spent 23 years behind bars for something I didn’t do… 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,” stated Inman, who maintained his innocence the entire time he was behind bars.
As a result of Inman’s petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus, meaning he had to appear in court to present his case for release against any legal challenges on June 28, 2021, the court discovered two of Inman’s constitutional rights had been violated: His right to effective counsel, and the prosecution’s failure to disclose evidence.
None of the physical evidence found in a nearby abandoned parking lot, including a homemade mask and the victim’s car, had any connection to Inman, according to his defense team.
The prosecution filed their intent to seek the death penalty on Jan. 27, 2000. As the trial proceeded, two witnesses recanted their pre-trial statements designating Inman as seen near the Taco Bell the evening of the crime. They testified that they were pressured by law enforcement to give their statements.
Three of the four main witnesses, who served as practically the only evidence that Inman had committed this crime, later came out and recanted their statements, said GIP. And the sole witness that did not recant their statement was paid a sum of $5,000 to make the statement in the first place. And their testimony is directly contested by another witness’s testimony.
Inman’s attorney had also secured witnesses that were prepared to testify that a different man, known as Hercules Brown, admitted to the Taco Bell murder.
When Inman’s legal team attempted to present such evidence to the judge, the judge refused to allow the jury to hear these testimonies. The prosecutor even claimed that the defense had not “one scintilla of evidence” that would connect Hercules Brown to this murder, said GIP.
The evidence that the prosecution failed to disclose was the fact that Hercules Brown was found in possession of a gun and a similar homemade mask upon arrest at a nearby location to the Taco Bell murder just eight months before Inman’s trial. This incident report was only brought to light during the Habeas hearing, said GIP.
Years later after Inman’s conviction, Hercules Brown’s DNA was found on the homemade mask discovered in the victim’s car. Inman had filed a motion for Post-Conviction DNA Testing with the assistance of the Georgia Innocence Project on March 12, 2010.
Initially, Inman had demanded copies of the original case files, police reports, and witness statements from his first lawyer Melinda Ryals. Inman never got his hands on the requested files but managed to find a new lawyer by 2004.
Defense counsel August “Bud” Siemon filed a motion for a new trial on May 3, 2004 and on April 4, 2005. However, the court denied the motion for a new trial on Oct. 12, 2005.
Both Ryals and Siemon testified during the Habeas hearing that if they had known about Brown’s incident reports, they would have used the information as support for the now- failed motion for a new trial.
GIP said Georgia’s Attorney General has long-defended Inman’s conviction, and asked Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Chief Justice Kristina Cook Graham to dismiss Inman’s case without a hearing despite compelling evidence that Inman was not responsible for the 1998 murder.
When Judge Graham denied the AG’s request, maintaining that Inman was entitled to a hearing based on the merit of his claims, the AG asked the state’s Supreme Court to appeal her decision.
Members of the Georgia Supreme Court instead urged the AG in 2019 “to stop defending the apparently unjust conviction in Inman’s case,” noted GIP. But Georgia’s AG continued defending Inman’s conviction for another two years.
Now free, Inman plans to join his family again in California, and start working on readjusting to normal life. Inman has said that he will forever be a part of Georgia’s exonerate community and the Georgia Innocence Project family.
Meanwhile, nonprofits After Innocence and the Northern California Innocence Project have offered Inman their exonerate support services.
Georgia is one of only 13 states without statutory compensation law to give relief to those who’ve lost years of their lives because of wrongful convictions. This serious lack of support can leave exonerates just like Inman without any way to rebuild their lives once they are freed.
A personal fundraiser has been created through MightyCause to help Inman and his family. All funds will go directly to Inman, and are not tax-deductible. this link.