In the fall of 2001, lawmakers in Cook County, Georgia voted to raise taxes for the coming year. The $1.75 million hike passed “unanimously but reluctantly,” according to the Adel News Tribune, which cited large expenditures in the name of law and order. There was the opening of the new county jail, requiring new staff and equipment, but, more significantly, the previous spring Adel had seen its first death penalty trial in a generation. The weeklong trial of 20-year-old Devonia Inman for the killing of a single mother named Donna Brown “quadrupled the Superior Court budget,” according to the newspaper. The sequestered jurors were housed in a motel, fed three meals a day, and escorted by police at all times. Now, close on the heels of Inman’s conviction, the county faced the prospect of yet another capital trial.

Kirk Gordon was Adel’s police chief at the time. “You’re not going to find many smaller counties that’s going after the death penalty if they can get by with life,” he says. “The cost of a big trial can bankrupt a county.” But 2001 was no ordinary year in Adel. A string of murders had recently gripped the small rural town, stirring fear, anxiety, and collective cries for justice. The first was the murder of  Donna Brown, who was shot in a Taco Bell parking lot in September 1998, for which Inman stood trial. The second, in April 2000, was the brutal killing of an Indian immigrant named Shailesh Patel, a crime that remains unsolved — and largely forgotten in Adel today. The third was a brazen double murder committed in broad daylight in the fall of 2000. In that case, a man named Hercules Brown had been arrested for killing two beloved members of the community — William Carroll Bennett and his employee, Rebecca Browning — at a popular grocery store and lunch spot, Bennett’s Cash and Carry. As Inman’s trial came to a close — ultimately ending in a life sentence — Hercules was facing his own capital trial.

Prosecutors had every reason to feel confident that they could win a death sentence this time. The state had come close to sending Inman to death row, despite its relatively weak case — in their first vote during deliberations, nearly half the jurors favored the death penalty. By comparison, the evidence against Hercules was airtight. What’s more, the Bennett family wanted the death penalty — and Bennett’s older brother, Buck, was one of the county commissioners who voted to make sure there was money in the budget.

The intersection where the Bennett and Browning murders occurred in Adel, GA in 2000. The murders were at a small grocery store that has since been torn down.

An intersection near the site where the Bennett and Browning were murdered in Adel.

Photo: Ryan Christopher Jones for The Intercept

Yet it would never come to pass. Shortly before his trial was set to begin in 2002, Hercules cut a plea deal with prosecutors. In exchange for a life sentence, he would divulge a piece of evidence that had eluded the Georgia Bureau of Investigation: the identity of his accomplice, whom Hercules had long refused to name. The man, 23-year-old Wesley Mason, had remained on the streets for more than a year, much to the anger and dismay of Adel’s residents. In one of several outraged columns, News Tribune editor-in-chief Ann Knight chided the GBI for leaving the town vulnerable to a killer on the loose, calling on Adel residents to make their voices heard. “Do you want the next crime victim to be you or your father, your grandfather, maybe your wife?”

After giving up Mason, Hercules swiftly went from protecting his co-defendant to pinning everything on him. It had been Mason’s idea to rob the store, Hercules said, and it was Mason who attacked both Bennett and Browning with a baseball bat. Although Hercules admitted that he grabbed the store’s cash register — throwing it at two eyewitnesses immediately following the crime — he implied that this, too, had been Mason’s idea. But Mason, who had initially denied being there at all, told GBI agent Jamy Steinberg the opposite: It was Hercules who committed the murders, beating both Bennett and Browning to death, completely out of the blue.

There is no indication in the available records that anyone sought to determine who actually committed the grisly crime. The lack of clarity still distresses Bennett’s widow, Gail, who left Adel following her husband’s death. “Which one did what, I have no idea,” she says about Mason and Hercules. “It frustrates you, because you don’t know. You don’t.”

With Hercules headed to prison for life in May 2002, it was Mason who now faced a possible death sentence. It would be up to his appointed defense attorneys to prove that Mason was the less culpable party, that only Hercules was capable of such heinous acts. This would mean finding out whatever they could about Hercules’s history of violence, a search that would soon raise new questions about other murders in Adel.

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A crime scene photo of the Taco Bell parking lot where Donna Brown was murdered in 1998.

Photo: GBI

What Really Happened at Taco Bell?

Defense attorney Josh Moore works in a large office building in the heart of Atlanta that is home to the State Bar of Georgia. On a weekday in 2017, he sat at his desk, surrounded by case files, a drawing by his young son hanging on the wall. As the appellate director of the Office of the Georgia Capital Defender, Moore has spent more than 15 years trying to save his clients from death row — including Wesley Mason, back in 2003. As Moore recalls, Mason insisted that although he was present when Bennett and Browning were murdered, he had no idea that Hercules would go on a killing spree and he did not participate in the violence. “So the question was, how much of it was Wesley Mason and how much of it was Hercules Brown?” Moore recalls. The answer would be key to keeping his client off death row.

“I quickly recognized that a deeper understanding of Hercules Brown was critical to our defense,” Moore says. He drove the three hours south to Adel on I-75. Almost immediately he began to hear stories about how Hercules was the person responsible for the murder of Donna Brown at the Taco Bell in 1998 — and that the wrong man had gone to prison for life. The rumors were “rampant,” Moore recalls, but he could not get anyone to go on the record. “Everybody was saying that this is what happened. And everyone was saying, as is typical in a place like Adel, they didn’t want to talk about it.”

Indeed, while Mason had no violent criminal history, Hercules’s recent past was checkered with violent incidents. In June 1999, he was accused of attacking a woman — the mother of a drug dealer — by pulling her out of a car and kicking her in the head. “It looked like she had been in a fight with Mike Tyson,” former Adel police Officer Tim Balch recalled. But the case was never prosecuted because the woman declined to cooperate. In July 2000, Hercules was accused of knocking a man on a bicycle to the ground and wailing on him until witnesses restrained him. The man was hospitalized for three days. Hercules was sentenced to 12 months of probation.

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A yearbook photo of Hercules Brown from Cook County High School.

Photo: Liliana Segura/The Intercept

And just weeks before the murders of Bennett and Browning, in September 2000 Hercules was arrested again — for an attempted robbery at another grocery store less than a mile from Bennett’s. Balch had received word from a confidential informant that the robbery was about to go down; he made a beeline to the market and spotted Hercules driving his blue Cadillac. After pulling him over and searching the car, Balch found crack cocaine, a 40-caliber pistol, and in the trunk, a black cloth cap with two eyeholes cut into it — a makeshift mask not unlike the one that had been found in Donna Brown’s car in 1998.

But as he had in the past, Hercules was able to escape consequence thanks to one person: his mother, Lucinda Brown. When Balch arrived with him at the police station, Lucinda was already there. She began “cussing me out about how her son would never have done any of this,” he recalled. Balch is not easily intimidated. But he held his tongue. Lucinda was well-known among local cops and prosecutors — and well-respected among Adel’s mostly white leadership. As a top employee at the Division of Family and Children Services, officers like Balch relied on Lucinda to help them solve child abuse cases. She was not shy about intervening when her son got in trouble. The dynamic “led to a lot of…problems,” Balch said. Hercules was quickly released.

That Hercules was not locked up then haunts Gail Bennett. She’s certain that he should have been jailed — and likely long before the attempted robbery. If police had ever considered him seriously as a suspect for the earlier murders in Adel, she believes that her husband would still be alive. “Starting with the Taco Bell [murder] on forward, as much stuff as Hercules had gotten into, yes, I thoroughly believe it could have been prevented,” she said.

Josh Moore soon began to suspect the same thing. In fact, the more time he spent investigating, the more he heard that Hercules might be responsible for yet another murder. “There was another case too,” he said. As he recalls, it was “maybe an Indian fellow who got murdered, maybe a television or an air conditioner smashed over his head.” And in fact Shailesh Patel had been beaten and murdered seven months before the killings at Bennett’s grocery. “I heard that very quickly too,” Moore said. “That’s what people were saying about Hercules, that he had committed … those two murders prior to the Bennett murder.”

Moore’s familiarity with Patel’s murder stood in sharp contrast to much of Adel today. Although most longtime residents recall the era between the murder at Taco Bell and the killings of Bennett and Browning as a terrifying time, many people have only a faint memory of Patel’s death — if they have any at all.

There was little Moore could do to probe the Patel case, which remained open. But since it was closed, documents relating to the murder of Donna Brown should be public record. “I started aggressively investigating the Taco Bell case,” he said. He didn’t get far. Not long after he’d sent an open records request seeking the GBI’s investigative file, Moore’s inquiry was shut down — by the lawyer appointed alongside him to defend Mason.

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A police sketch of Wesley Mason.

Image: GBI

The lawyer, Clark Landrum, was not a defense attorney but a full-time prosecutor from a neighboring judicial district. That a prosecutor would be tapped to lead a capital defense team may be startling, but Moore says this was par for the course in South Georgia. “I grew up in Georgia, but I’m an outsider when you go down to Cook County,” he explains. “This is not a place where the judicial system runs in any kind of recognizable way to most lawyers.”

According to Moore, Landrum wrote him a formal letter demanding that he stop his investigation. “It turned into a huge conflict between us because I basically said, ‘I’m not willing to do that. I don’t really care what you’re saying, I’m going to go ahead and investigate this because my allegiance is to my client.’” Stunned and disturbed by Landrum’s behavior, Moore turned to the judge in the case to ask that Landrum be removed. “That turned into a big ugly brawl too,” he said.

As Moore prepared to meet the judge, accompanied by Mason and his mother, he recalls seeing Landrum leaving the office of Bob Ellis, the same prosecutor who convicted Devonia Inman for the murder at Taco Bell — and who would now prosecute Mason. Inside chambers, noting that there was “a difference of opinion” between the two lawyers assigned to Mason’s case, the judge chose to remove Moore instead of Landrum.

That is not what Mason wanted, Moore said. “The family had no faith in Clark Landrum at all and didn’t want him representing Wesley.” Moore stood firm: He and another lawyer from Atlanta would be taking the case pro bono, and that was final. The judge retorted that they’d better not ask for any money for their defense, because he wouldn’t give them a dime.

Over email, Landrum described the incident differently. Moore was “difficult to supervise,” he claimed, and would interview witnesses and then refuse to share any information with him. But he denied trying to stop Moore from looking into the Taco Bell case. “That is ridiculous,” he wrote.

Moore prevailed in taking over the case — but his investigation into Hercules’ involvement in the Taco Bell murder quickly came to an end when Mason was offered a deal for life in prison. He took it. The message was clear: Between the GBI and the prosecutors in Cook County, nobody wanted Moore to revisit the murder of Donna Brown. “As you have seen, I’m sure, in looking into this again,” he says, “a lot of doors close in your face.”

The parking lot of an old Pizza Hut in Adel, GA. On the night of the Taco Bell murder, Virginia Tatem alleges that she saw Devonia park the car in the lot after the murder at the Taco Bell across the highway.

The parking lot of the old Pizza Hut in Adel, Ga.

Photo: Ryan Christopher Jones for The Intercept

DNA Test Results

Devonia Inman was just beginning his life sentence in 2002 when he wrote a letter to the fledgling Georgia Innocence Project, pleading for help. “We started looking at his case very early on and have stayed with his case,” said Aimee Maxwell, the group’s founding executive director. To Maxwell, who has since left the GIP, the case immediately stood out for all the wrong reasons — the lack of any physical evidence tying Inman to the crime and the confounding stories offered by a parade of witnesses who either recanted or had something to gain from testifying against him. “It was very telling who the witnesses were,” she said. “You can’t figure out when they’re telling the truth. Do you really want [them] to put a man in prison for life without parole? That’s the shocking thing — and it could have possibly been death.”

Maxwell began a hunt for evidence that could be tested for DNA. Tape lifts with fingerprints recovered from Donna Brown’s car that might have contained skin cells suitable for testing had disappeared, she said. But one key piece of evidence still existed: the makeshift mask recovered from her car. In March 2011, Maxwell got the go-ahead to have it tested.

Just two months later, DNA testing linked the mask to a single source: Hercules Brown.

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A crime scene photo of the inside of Donna Brown’s car. On the passenger seat is a makeshift ski mask cut from a section of sweatpants.

Photo: GBI

The revelation all but confirmed what many in Adel had long suspected: The real killer in the Taco Bell murder was Hercules — and the state had imprisoned the wrong man. To Maxwell, it was clearly grounds for Inman to receive a new trial.

As the GIP lawyers in Atlanta geared up to make the case to Judge L.A. McConnell — the same judge who presided over Inman’s original trial — down in Cook County, few had heard about the DNA. No story ran in the Adel News Tribune. Nonetheless, one man who had been a key player in Inman’s conviction had received the news: Tim Eidson, the assistant district attorney who helped send Inman to prison for life.

Eidson was no longer a prosecutor by this time. He had moved on to head the public defender’s office in neighboring Cordele, later becoming a sort of roving defense attorney, based in Alabama and representing clients all over South Georgia. In an office in Douglas, Georgia, in the fall of 2016, Eidson recalled hearing about the DNA. “Now I know that my ex-wife called me one day,” he said. “She was kind of in a tizzy because they had got a call from someone and she says, ‘Do you remember that mask you found?’ I said yeah. ‘Well they found that it had Hercules Brown’s DNA in it … and they’re saying that he might have been involved in the Taco Bell murder.’”

There was good reason for Eidson’s ex-wife to have heard the news before him: Hercules had killed her uncle. In a typical small-town connection, Eidson had once been married to William Carroll Bennett’s niece. They had recently divorced when Eidson got the phone call in 2000 that Bennett had been beaten to death. “I was like, ‘Lord have mercy,’ because I knew him. … I knew his entire family.”

Like Gail Bennett, who believes that Hercules should have been arrested for the murder of Donna Brown at Taco Bell, other members of the Bennett family were upset by the implications of the DNA. Yet Eidson maintains that, although “we had our suspicions at the time,” there was never enough evidence to indict Hercules. Lucinda Brown had provided an alibi for her son, after all, and she was well-respected in the community. Besides, Eidson said, the DNA evidence merely linked Hercules to the crime. It did not mean Inman was innocent. If the state had known there was DNA on the mask matching Hercules, Eidson said, “his name would have been there along with Devonia Inman.”

Yet Eidson and Ellis had convicted Inman by arguing that he alone had committed the crime. The DNA was compelling evidence that they had gotten it wrong — and that Inman deserved a new trial.

The Taco Bell in Adel, GA. Devonia Inman was convicted of a murder that happened in the parking lot of this Taco Bell in 1998.

The Taco Bell in Adel, Ga., reflected in a nearby window.

Photo: Ryan Christopher Jones for The Intercept

The State Changes Its Story

In January 2014, Maxwell traveled to Adel for an evidentiary hearing before Judge McConnell. She felt confident.

After the DNA results from the mask came back, GBI agent Jamy Steinberg, who with Adel Police Department detective Jimmy Hill led the investigation into the murder at Taco Bell, had gone to see Hercules in prison. In a recorded interview in June 2011, Hercules denied any involvement in Donna Brown’s murder and ever wearing the mask containing his DNA. He also denied knowing Inman. “Steinberg explained to Brown that the only profile shown in the mask was his and that DNA was very specific and if somebody else tried it on, it would show their profile as well,” Steinberg wrote in his report, adding that Hercules said “he did not remember anything about it; it had been a long time.”

Maxwell was thrilled with the interview. “It was this genius interrogation because they gave [Hercules] all the outs; he took none of them,” she said. “They backed him into a corner and he has no place to go. He can’t come back now and explain, ‘Oh, well, yeah, you know we were best friends and we were hanging out that night and, oh yeah, I had this makeshift mask that I was using, but I loaned it to him.’ He can’t do any of that now.”

At trial, Inman’s attorneys had sought to admit evidence showing that, during their investigation into Donna Brown’s murder, police had been repeatedly told that Hercules was responsible for the crime. But prosecutors balked, insisting that the allegations were unreliable and should be excluded. McConnell had agreed, ruling that absent any solid link between Hercules and the crime, speculation about his involvement would be kept from the jury. Now, standing in the Cook County courthouse, Maxwell argued that the DNA was precisely that link. “That’s the witness that tells us the truth. That’s the one piece of evidence that tells us who was actually there.”

In response, the state did an about-face. “The evidence was never that Mr. Inman acted alone,” prosecutor Jess Hornsby argued, completely contradicting the state’s theory at trial. The DNA did “nothing to exonerate Mr. Inman,” he said. “All that does is possibly implicate another person that may have been involved.”

In all, the hearing did not go particularly well. The transcripts suggest that Maxwell’s argument was scattered and rushed, and the state fought at every turn to keep additional witnesses off the stand. They included Kwame Spaulding, the jailhouse informant who previously testified that Inman had confessed to him while the two were locked up together. Now, Spaulding said he had been coerced into making this claim, through promises that the GBI would get him released. “I mean, he was telling me he’ll let me go home and he was telling me stuff to say about the man,” Spaulding said, presumably referring to Steinberg, who had taken his statement back in 1999.

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Kwame Spaulding’s note to jailers claiming he had information for the GBI about Donna Brown’s murder.

Image: GBI

Maxwell also sought to call Virginia Tatem, the witness who at trial had been so adamant that she had seen Inman driving Brown’s car the night of her murder (and whose claims about what she had seen were far-fetched at best). Maxwell wanted to ask Tatem whether she had ever received the $5,000 offered by Taco Bell for information. Tatum refused to answer any questions.

Finally, there was Hercules Brown. Not surprisingly, he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Steinberg’s testimony was terse. Maxwell wanted to know if he’d done any further investigation after learning that Hercules’s DNA was found on the mask.

“There’s been no additional investigative acts after that,” he replied.

“Did you compare the latent fingerprints [from the crime scene] which did not match my client to Mr. Brown?” she followed up.

“I just answered that question,” Steinberg said.

Steinberg has been similarly testy toward others who have questioned his work. In the wake of the murders of Bennett and Browning, Gail Bennett wrote a letter to the editor of the Adel News Tribune, complaining that she had been unable to get any answers from the GBI about its hunt for Hercules’s accomplice. Steinberg met with the family soon afterward. “He was very ugly,” Gail said. “He looked at me and said, ‘I don’t have to tell you anything.’”

If Judge McConnell was more interested in the implications of the DNA evidence than Steinberg appeared to be, he did not seem motivated to do much about it. While his decision to hold the hearing in the first place was an important step — plenty of trial judges deny such hearings when it comes to questionable convictions won in their courtrooms — it would not matter in the end. McConnell sided with the state and denied Inman a new trial — and he asked the DA to pen his ruling for him.

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A makeshift mask can be seen inside Donna Brown’s car in the abandoned Pizza Hut parking lot.

Photo: GBI

The eight-page ruling endorses the state’s revisionist history — adopting prosecutors’ new theory of the crime — and faulted the GIP for not offering additional evidence linking Hercules to the crime, the very evidence that McConnell had barred from Inman’s original trial. “At the hearing, Defendant presented no evidence that would implicate Hercules Brown as the killer other than the DNA on the ski mask,” it reads. The ruling acknowledged that “the DNA on the ski mask is not irrelevant,” but concluded that it was not significant enough to “produce a different verdict” if Inman was granted a new trial.

In its appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court, the GIP argued that the shifting theory of the crime was improper. The law does not allow the state to charge a person with one crime and then argue at trial or on appeal that he is responsible for an entirely different crime — a legal disconnect known as a fatal variance. The state had charged Inman as solely responsible for the robbery and murder of Donna Brown, but with Hercules’s DNA found on the ski mask they now argued that there were multiple people involved in the crime. That convenient shift essentially denied Inman the right to effectively defend himself.

But like McConnell, the Georgia Supreme Court shrugged off the argument. On December 19, 2014, it rejected Inman’s appeal. Maxwell was bewildered and devastated. “I pretty much think about this case almost every day, and I can’t figure out how I lost it,” she said. “I can’t believe that this young man … is in prison for the rest of his life based on a bunch of liars.”

Down in Adel, people were mostly unaffected by the ruling. News of the DNA match to Hercules didn’t even make the local paper until after The Intercept began its investigation into the case in 2015. To Charles Shiver, longtime reporter and editor of the News Tribune, the discovery of Hercules’s DNA on the mask had been “kind of disturbing to me,” but he deferred to the conclusions of the court. “I mean, I can’t second-guess the judge,” he said.

Jess Cino, associate dean at the Georgia State University College of Law, has taken up his Devonia Inman's cause for innocence.

Jessica Cino, associate dean at the Georgia State University College of Law.

Photo: Ryan Christopher Jones for The Intercept

A Clear Miscarriage of Justice

It wasn’t long after Maxwell’s loss before the Georgia Supreme Court that Jessica Cino stopped by her office to discuss a case.

Cino, now 40 and an assistant dean at the Georgia State University College of Law, grew up in a poor family in rural Kansas. She didn’t know anything about the criminal justice system or its failures until she went to college, when she took a class on the death penalty that changed the course of her life. “I was profoundly disturbed for the entire semester,” she recalls. It “opened my eyes to this hidden system of justice that I had no idea even existed.” Where she once hoped to become an actor, she instead applied to law school, winning a scholarship to the University of Miami based in part on her determination to open an innocence project at the school, which she did. After graduation she went to work at a silk-stocking firm in San Francisco, where she spent much of her time working on capital cases that the firm took on pro bono and developing an expertise in forensics and DNA evidence.

It was one of those pro bono cases that woke her up to the real-world injustices of the system. Her firm had taken on the case of a black man named Cory Maye who faced execution after being wrongfully convicted for shooting a white police officer in Mississippi. During a hearing in the case, Cino remembers seeing for the first time a dramatic representation of a racial divide in the justice system. The courthouse in Hattiesburg was an old-fashioned, two-tiered courtroom, complete with a gallery where black attendees were once forced to sit before integration. But that day, the courtroom was segregated anyway. When she walked in, she said, “all of the people who supported the officer and his family and the prosecutor were all white; they were all on one side of the courtroom. And then, Cory’s supporters were mostly African-Americans, so they were on the other side.”

Later, when Cino was offered a job at GSU, she jumped at the opportunity. She knew how badly the South needed skilled death penalty lawyers. After arriving in Atlanta in 2009, she quickly developed a relationship with the GIP.

On the day Cino stopped by to chat with Maxwell, she had a different case on her mind. But Maxwell had just lost Inman’s appeal. “She started telling me about the case. It sounded horrendous,” she said. Maxwell told her about the court rulings and the DNA evidence that pointed to a clear miscarriage of justice. That the Georgia Supreme Court had basically turned its back meant that Inman was out of meaningful options to challenge his conviction. “I think even my own notions of how the criminal justice system worked and how pivotal DNA evidence is in cases was tested,” she said. It wasn’t like anyone was asking the state to just set Inman free, Cino thought, only that he deserved a new trial, based on the DNA. After all, if jurors had known about it in 2001, it is hard to imagine that they would have convicted him.

Maxwell sent Cino a copy of the trial transcript. She devoured it. “I would just keep turning the page and say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. How did this guy get convicted?’” she recalls. The miscarriage of justice was so clear, she knew she had to do something. If she didn’t, she remembers thinking, it would alter the way she thought of herself as a lawyer. “This is a case that cries out for people to look at and to re-examine, and I wouldn’t be able to just walk away from it.”

That July, Cino and a research assistant packed into her silver convertible Mini Cooper and headed out from Atlanta, driving more than three hours southeast to meet Inman in the Georgia State Prison in Reidsville. She wanted to get a read on him. “I’ve met a lot of guys behind bars over the years. Some of them are totally trying to bullshit me, some of them are brutally honest and candid about their history,” she said. “So I wanted to go and just size him up and see what he had to say about the case, but also, how sincere was he?”

USA, GA, Nov. 2012. Georgia State Prison. This medium security prison near Reidsville was opened in 1937. It houses 1,500 inmates.

The Georgia State Prison, photographed in November 2012.

Photo: Jan Banning/Panos via Redux

At the prison, she spent an hour talking with Inman. She would return four more times over the next few months. He was clearly “seriously depressed” and living under horrible circumstances. And she believed him when he said he did not kill Donna Brown. “When he started talking about the case, it rang true.” He told her about his run-ins with the law in California and about his rocky relationships with women, and how he’d gotten into an argument with his girlfriend, Christy Lima, on the night of the murder. “So he was forthcoming with all of that, but he was adamant … that he did not kill Donna Brown and that he had never killed anybody.”

He also expressed remorse about not taking more seriously the state’s case against him. “He was just so sure that a jury wouldn’t convict him,” she said. “That’s sort of where, I think even emotionally, his development stopped. He very much just relives the two to three weeks surrounding the Taco Bell crime every single day of his life, and that’s what he focuses on.”

Talking to Inman is not easy. More often than not his voice is flat and he is despairing about his circumstances. He doesn’t understand why no one believes him, particularly since the DNA evidence points to Hercules Brown, a man Inman insists he did not know, except by reputation. Without any good answers, Inman lives in a perpetual melancholic loop, reliving often minute details about what was going on in the weeks and hours before the Taco Bell murder and punishing himself with a string of what-ifs.

He returns to the same set of memories over and over: how Marquetta Thomas, Lima’s sister, was not at home most of that evening; how a car had arrived at the house late that night, shining its bright lights through the windows, possibly dropping someone off. And he remembers playing outside in the dirt with his young son earlier that afternoon and how his son pleaded with him not to leave. “I kind of feel bad when I think about it now because it’s like he was really trying to tell me something that he seen, I guess. It was like, I’m gonna go away for a long time,” he recalled. “If you look at the way he was crying, because he was really crying, he was holding my shirt and wouldn’t let go.”

Inman has not seen his son in more than 20 years. And there is a good chance that he might never see him again — not free in the world, at least — unless Cino can find a way to convince the courts that Inman is innocent. She is determined to do so and since 2015, has spent hundreds of hours working on his case.

An old photo of Devonia Inman in the 1990's before going away to prison for life.

A photo of Devonia Inman in the 1990’s.

Photo: Ryan Christopher Jones for The Intercept

A Rigged System

At the heart of Inman’s predicament is a problem that many Americans do not understand. For all of the rights offered to people accused of crimes, there is no right that explicitly protects a person against a wrongful conviction. The Constitution is mostly silent on this point, concerned instead with whether a defendant received a fair trial. Did you have minimally competent lawyers? Were you able to cross-examine the state’s witnesses? Barring any violations of due process, the system is satisfied — even if the wrong person is convicted.

“I think one of the biggest myths about the criminal justice system and the way it functions is that most of the time we get it right, but in the slim chance we get it wrong, we’ll be able to correct it down the road,” says Cino. “That’s just not true. That’s not true on any level.” In many ways it is a rigged system. “Once you’re convicted, it’s meant to keep you there. It is not meant to re-examine your case, no matter the circumstances” — say, if a victim or witness recants, or if a jailhouse snitch was proven to be unreliable. “The system is designed to keep you wherever they put you once they convict you,” she says. “That’s why there’s that presumption of innocence before you get convicted, but once you’re convicted, it’s a presumption of guilty, and that is almost impossible to undo.”

The rise of DNA evidence has helped some — but has also lulled people into a belief that it is able to rectify all wrongs. DNA is only available in a fraction of cases. In many, it has proven critical in correcting miscarriages of justice — for example, in rape cases in which a person has misidentified their attacker. But as Inman learned the hard way, even when DNA is available, it is only as good as the people considering it. Often, the state fights against testing DNA, then denies its significance when it is matched to another person. And, like McConnell, many judges will decline to grant a new trial, even when forensic evidence points to a wrongful conviction.

This harsh reality has left Inman with little legal recourse. His best shot is a true Hail Mary pass: a writ of habeas corpus based on actual innocence — what amounts to a legal unicorn. But in order to create the best odds, Cino would have to find a constitutional violation in the case — that Inman’s previous lawyers were deficient, for example, or that prosecutors failed to turn over important evidence — to serve as the basis for the appeal. “It’s a shot in the dark,” she says. But she is determined to try and has wrangled a pro bono legal team from one of Atlanta’s prestige firms, Troutman Sanders, to help her.

Cino constantly worries about the case and wonders if she’ll actually be able to help Inman. “Because whenever I talk to him on the phone…he always asks me, ‘What are the chances of me getting out? Do I have a good chance?’ He wants to be optimistic,” she says. “The lawyer in me knows the reality of what he faces.” So she’s caught, trying to “manage his expectations without crushing his last hope.” She wakes up in the middle of the night, sweating, worrying about Inman’s case, as well as Inman himself. “I don’t know what it’s like for him day to day in prison, let alone day to day in prison where you’re an innocent man,” she says. “I can’t imagine that. Then, to have your one chance [at freedom] be so slight, I feel horrible as…a human being that this is how bad this system is.”

But there is one thing that could help Inman’s case almost immediately, Cino says: “You would need Hercules Brown to come forward and admit to the crime and also say that Devonia didn’t have a role in it.”

In the three years since we began working on this story, we have written numerous letters to Hercules in prison. He has responded just once, in July 2016. He did not explicitly deny committing the murder of Donna Brown, but wrote, “I don’t have any thing to say about Devonia Inman nor his conviction or any thing pertaining to his case.” If Hercules continues to stay silent, it seems likely that the truth behind the Adel murders will remain untold.

On a Sunday afternoon in 2017 we finally got in touch with Hercules’s mother, Lucinda Brown. We had hoped to ask her about the alibi she had provided for Hercules, and how she felt about the many rumors about her son. Over the phone, we asked her if she could help us sort out the truth of the matter. Not surprisingly, she refused. “You’ll never know what’s true and what’s not,” she said. “So I don’t have anything to give you.”

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