A murder in the small southern town of Adel, Georgia, sent Devonia Inman to jail 20 years ago. He was accused of robbing and shooting a woman named Donna Brown in a Taco Bell parking lot. He swore he was innocent and there were good reasons to believe him. And while he awaited trial, three more brutal killings took place in Adel. Did police get the wrong man?
Jordan Smith: Okay, quick. I want you to think back. Think back to 20 years ago. It was 1998. A different world. Phones with antennas, cargo pants, meeting your friend at the gate at the airport. You’ve done a lot in the last 20 years. Think about that. Everything you’ve accomplished. Maybe you finished school, or got married, or had a baby. Maybe that baby graduated high school and is now in college.
Liliana Segura: 20 years is a long time. A marriage, a career.
Jordan Smith: But 20 years is a whole other experience if you’re spending that time in prison.
Devonia Inman: My depression is more about being incarcerated. They really don’t, they really can’t give me pills for that.
Liliana Segura: And insisting the whole time that you’re innocent.
Devonia Inman: Cause no matter what, every time I wake up, I’m still going to feel the same way. Like I’m not supposed to be here.
Liliana Segura: In 1998, a brutal murder shocked the small southern town of Adel, Georgia. A guy named Devonia Inman was arrested and tried for that murder. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Devonia Inman: This is like- it’s worser than an old folks home to me. The reason is, you’re waiting to get old. You know, it’s like, it’s the most miserable-est life you can ever possibly go through. I’d rather be dead or a bum on the street than be in prison.
Liliana Segura: We’re gonna tell you about the murder that sent Inman to prison. We’ve looked into it. We’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand what happened. And we’ve found quite a few problems with the investigation. They’re the kinds of problems that can eventually lead to a new trial. Maybe even an exoneration. But that hasn’t happened for Devonia Inman. And that makes Inman sad. It makes him angry. But mostly he’s just really fucking depressed.
Devonia Inman: I remember my son wanted me to, you know, cause I usually take him riding on the bicycle.
Liliana Segura: This is Inman talking about the day the murder happened. That day plays on a loop in his mind. He thinks that maybe, if he’d just stayed with his son, none of this would have happened.
Devonia Inman: If you, you know, look at the way he was crying, because he was really crying, he was like holding my shirt and wouldn’t let go. I’m like, “I’ll come back and talk to you later on. I’ll come and get you later on.” He was just crying, saying,”No, no, no.”.
Liliana Segura: Inman’s son is an adult now. Inman hasn’t seen him in 20 years.
Jordan Smith: Wrongful convictions are tragic, often infuriatingly so. And wrongful conviction stories — we’ve written a lot of them and they never get any easier, because lives are ruined and justice is rarely served. And there’s something else that happens when someone is sent to prison for a crime they didn’t commit, especially when that crime is murder. It means the real killer is still out there and it means the real killer sometimes kills again, and again, and again.
Liliana Segura: From The Intercept, I’m Liliana Segura.
Jordan Smith: And I’m Jordan Smith. Welcome to Murderville, Georgia. Starting in 1998, a series of brutal, brutal murders ended up with four people dead, two men in jail, and one of the craziest stories we’ve ever reported on, from beginning to end.
Liliana Segura: And the craziest part? Even though the state of Georgia has seen the evidence of Devonia Inman’s innocence, even though nearly every witness against him has recanted, many going out of their way to tell the state that they lied, none of that seems to matter.
Jordan Smith: In all likelihood, Devonia Inman will spend the rest of his life in prison. We wanted to understand how this could happen. How could an investigation this shoddy—and a case this weak—end in a conviction and a life sentence? We also want to know why the state doesn’t care, even after evidence turned up that would exonerate Inman. The state might not care, but we hope that you will.
Liliana Segura: September 18, 1998 was a Friday. Donna Brown was on her third day as the new assistant manager at the Taco Bell in Adel. Adel is a very small town in South Georgia. About three hours south of Atlanta, 40 miles from the Florida line. It’s not quite the middle of nowhere, but close. More like the kind of place you pass through on your way somewhere else.
Jordan Smith: Brown was white, 40, a single mom. According to news reports, she knew how to fish and how to shoot a gun. And she worked hard to take care of her seven-year-old son Matthew, who was the center of her world. Before heading into work that evening, she put on her uniform: navy blue pants. A white, collared, short-sleeved shirt tucked into them. A green name tag, shaped like a chili pepper, pinned to the left side of her shirt. On either side of her collar she wore a small pin: on one side an angel, the other side a dove. Those were her additions.
Liliana Segura: By all accounts it was an ordinary night. Until the end of the shift. Just after 2 a.m., a call came into the Adel police department. It was an employee at the Huddle House restaurant on West 4th Street, next door to the Taco Bell. She didn’t identify herself on the call. There’s something strange in the parking lot of the Taco Bell. Somebody is lying down in the middle of it. Maybe they passed out, drunk? Minutes later the cops arrived.
Jordan Smith: It wasn’t a drunk passed out in the middle of the lot. It was Donna Brown. She was lying in the parking lot face up with her arms splayed out to the side. Her head was in a puddle of blood. There was a hole where her right eye used to be and a .44-caliber bullet lodged deep in her brain. We went to see the Taco Bell. We were with an attorney named Jessica Cino. She’s gotten pretty involved with Devonia Inman’s case. Actually, she’s obsessed by his plight. She’s the one who brought this story to our attention. She learned about Inman’s case from the Georgia Innocence Project, more than three years ago. Cino is certain he is innocent and she’s determined to prove it.
Jordan Smith: So, okay, so here we are in the parking lot. It’s a pretty, you know, typical looking Taco Bell that fronts a sort of state highway. Let’s just talk about what happened to Donna Brown, what time of night it was, and where she ended up.
Jessica Cino: So it was the early morning hours of September 19. She was locking up, we’re talking like, you know, one in the morning, and she was closing with two employees.
Liliana Segura: That night Brown was working with a couple of teenagers, Robin Carter and LarRisha Chapman. They’re all supposed to leave together, but Brown couldn’t get the time cards to clock out properly. She probably didn’t want to be the boss who makes everyone wait on her. So she tells the young women to go on home.
Jessica Cino: So those two women leave.
Liliana Segura: Carter’s boyfriend picked her up around 12:45 am. Chapman waited on the curb until her boyfriend came, around 1:00 am.
Jessica Cino: And she then proceeds to shut down the store and leave by herself, which was actually against Taco Bell protocol at that time.
Jordan Smith: Taco Bell protocol: At the end of the night, the manager counts all the money and then either locks it up in the safe or calls the cops for an escort to the bank to make a night deposit. There was about $1700 in the cash register that night. Donna Brown figured out the time card thing and decided to take the cash to the bank. She did not call the cops.
Jessica Cino: She exits through a side door into the parking lot and presumably immediately encounters her murderer. There’s parking spaces on either side, there’s parking spaces right up against the restaurant and then there’s parking spaces on the opposite side of that, and so her body is just found in the middle of the parking lot between where cars would park.
Jordan Smith: There were weeds growing along the edge of parking lot. They were tamped down, like somebody had been lying there, waiting. The police later said they thought Donna Brown was already lying on her back when she was shot at very close range. The cops arrived just minutes later. Brown was dead. The money was gone and so was her car.
Murder is always shocking. And it was even more shocking for a quiet little town like Adel, which only has about 5,000 people. By morning, news of the crime was already making its way around town.
Let’s take a second to talk about Adel. This is our “talking about Adel” music. Adel was founded in the late 1800s. The land used to belong to Native Americans before it was overtaken by slave plantations.
Liliana Segura: For a long time, cotton was king. But later, it was timber and turpentine – and eventually tobacco. Today, a lot of the jobs are service related. The town was built along the Georgia Southern and Florida Railways. The tracks still run through Adel. And they divide the town — Adel’s black community on the west side of the tracks, whites over on the east side.
Jordan Smith: The town is equal parts black and white. But it’s sharply split, including in how it sees itself. Black people we’ve spoken with say racism is a problem. White people seem almost surprised at the question.
Today Interstate-75 brings traffic through. Driving down from Atlanta you know you’re getting close when you see a series of eye-popping religious billboards. There’s one with Jesus backed by a military battalion. Another seems open to interpretation, but it features a bunch of zombies. Most of the town sits east of the highway. What remains on the west is your basic highway exit: a motel, an I-HOP, a truck stop, a WalMart, and the Taco Bell where Donna Brown was killed.
Liliana Segura: One of the first cops to arrive that night was a man named Tim Balch.
Tim Balch: Hi, I’m Tim.
Jordan Smith: Nice to meet you.
Liliana Segura: Liliana.
Tim Balch: Liana?
Jordan Smith: Liliana.
Liliana Segura: Liliana, nice to meet you.
Tim Balch: Okay, okay, good to meet you.
Liliana Segura: Thanks for meeting us.
Jordan Smith: Yea, I appreciate it.
Liliana Segura: Balch isn’t a cop anymore. But he spent five years as an Adel police officer and then another eight as a deputy in the county sheriff’s department. He has a buzz cut, lots of tattoos and drives a Hummer.
Jordan Smith: We’re in AJ’s Country Kitchen, a small diner on the north side of town that serves up Southern comfort food. It’s in an old house the color of butter, and open for breakfast and lunch six days a week. It sits on the city’s main drag, Hutchinson Avenue. It’s just blocks from the police station and the fire station, the library and the weekly paper, which is the oldest business in Cook County. But even so, downtown Adel feels like a place that has seen better days. There are a lot of empty storefronts and it’s quiet, even in the middle of the afternoon.
Jordan Smith: Did you like policing here, or what, you know, what’s it like?
Tim Balch: With Adel, it’s only like 5,500 people here, so you get to kind of bump into a lot of the people. You go to a restaurant, you know, and they see you, and especially being an out-of-towner, you got noticed that much faster so that a lot more people would engage you faster than if you were just Johnny off the street that they knew for years and years.
Liliana Segura: This can be a good thing, or a bad thing, depending on who you are. But at its best, Adel’s the kind of town where the cops will make sure you get home okay after you’ve worked the night shift. The night Donna Brown died, they escorted managers from three other restaurants to the bank.
Tim Balch: You know, “can we get an escort to the bank?”, and we’d go over there. We’d escort them, which means basically we drive behind them when they go up there and do their nightly deposit. They drop it in. Contrast in the mornings, we would come and sit outside like AJ’s here, City Cafe, Dave’s Diner, all these little diners, and when the girls would come in to open up, we’d sit outside and make sure that they were fine going in, and once they gave us the thumbs up, we’d take off and go.
Liliana Segura: Tim Balch knew Donna Brown. That’s something that comes with small town policing too.
Tim Balch: I had worked in Clinch County prior to coming over here, and she was the manager at Hardee’s over in Homerville, Georgia, and just always very nice, very nice. I mean, any time that we would come in, she would stop what she was doing, come over, talk with us. Then, one night I was over here at Taco Bell, and I saw her, and I was like, “Hey, what are you up to?” And she said, “Oh, well, I’m manager of Taco Bell now.”
Liliana Segura: When Balch got called in, there didn’t seem to be much to do. He went to the Taco Bell to guard the crime scene.
Tim Balch: I think the chief was there, and of course, our investigator is not set up to handle a murder, so they turn all that kind of stuff over to Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and they had their crime scene truck there very quickly.
Jordan Smith: The Georgia Bureau of Investigation—the GBI. They’d always come when there was a big case. Not just in Adel, but throughout rural Georgia. And that’s because the local departments don’t have the forensic labs or manpower to solve big, complicated crimes. Tim Balch told us that the GBI usually did things very methodically and by the book. Usually.
Liliana Segura: So, until now, the story is pretty straightforward. Brutal murder, small town cops, state investigators. But this is where things start to get weird. Like, after police found Donna Brown’s car, they did pretty much nothing. They didn’t talk to any witnesses. They didn’t even file a report about what the scene looked like. Apparently, this was typical.
Jordan Smith: The Adel police department was small. There was only one detective, a man named Jimmy Hill. And nowhere near the resources to handle a serious crime like murder. That’s why the local cops called in the GBI. But the GBI is supposed to work with the local cops. In Adel, at least, the cops didn’t do much until the GBI showed up. They didn’t talk to witnesses, they didn’t write reports. It was a sign of the way the investigation would go. Basic things got bungled, or overlooked, or ignored.
Liliana Segura: Around 4:00 am, investigators found Donna Brown’s car. It had been left in the parking lot of an abandoned Pizza Hut, not far from the Taco Bell. Brown’s purse was in the trunk. Her keys were wedged between the driver’s seat and the door. The GBI team lifted prints from the car. They have never been matched to anyone. There were tire tracks that indicated a single vehicle had recently entered the lot. Presumably they belonged to Brown’s car, but there’s nothing in the GBI report that shows anybody ever tried to confirm it. And there was a shoe print in some dirt near the car, but nobody tried to figure out what size it was or even compare it to the shoes of any suspect. Maybe worst of all though, is that they apparently missed the key piece of evidence altogether. Even though it was clearly visible in the crime scene photos. A homemade mask cut from a pair of gray sweatpants. You can see it on the passenger seat.
Jordan Smith: Around 11:00 am Saturday morning, Jamy Steinberg, the lead investigator for GBI, interviewed Robin Carter, one of the girls who was working with Donna Brown the night she died. We called her during one of our trips to Adel.
Robin Carter: I remember washing dishes because that was one of my first nights closing. Because I wasn’t a regular closer and I believe that was, that was probably one of the only nights I closed and I was stuck in the back washing dishes.
Jordan Smith: Carter doesn’t remember much about that night, but she remembers that Donna Brown sent her and the other girl, LarRisha Chapman, home.
Jordan Smith: Right. And then, so what d- do you remember what you saw of LarRisha outside? Like, because you got picked up first, right?
Robin Carter: We were both outside waiting for our rides. My boyfriend picked me up and her boyfriend, I think it was her boyfriend. I think I left before her. I left from- I believe I left from the parking lot when my boyfriend picked me up.
Jordan Smith: While Steinberg was interviewing Carter, a GBI investigator and Adel’s chief of police went to talk to LarRisha Chapman. Chapman also said it had been a normal night. She’d hung around the parking lot waiting for her boyfriend. He picked her up just before 1:00 am. There was nothing unusual or suspicious. We couldn’t reach Chapman and a bunch of other people refused to talk with us, like Adel police investigator Jimmy Hill.
Jordan Smith: Is this Chief Deputy Hill?
Jimmy Hill: Yes, ma’am.
Jordan Smith: Well, hey. This is Jordan Smith. It’s great to hear your voice. How are you doing?
Jimmy Hill: I’m doing fine.
Jordan Smith: So we’ve been trying to get in touch with you because we’ve been working on a-
Jimmy Hill: Isn’t it a clue when I don’t return your call I don’t intend to talk to you?
Jordan Smith: Well, no, not necessarily.
Jimmy Hill: Well, I’m not talking to you.
Jordan Smith: Well, can you tell me why not?
Jimmy Hill: Yes, because I don’t want to talk to you.
Jordan Smith: But I mean is there-
Jimmy Hill: Now you have a nice day.
Jordan Smith: And Jamy Steinberg, the GBI investigator.
Liliana Segura: My colleague and I are in town looking into this old case you worked on, the 1998 murder of Donna Brown at the Taco Bell and we’re hoping that we might be able to meet with you and kind of maybe ask you some of your recollections about that case.
Jamy Steinberg: No ma’am, I’m not going to discuss the case. It’s been adjudicated. I’m not going to talk to you about it.
Jordan Smith: It seems they couldn’t be bothered with questions about a case they consider closed. There were a lot of people who did talk to us, though. And the Georgia Bureau of Investigation put together an enormous file. Plus there are trial transcripts. We’ve been looking at this case for three years and the more we’ve looked at it, the more it seems like the GBI just blew it. For one thing, even though there was no evidence that pointed to the killer’s race, they only interviewed young black men. People like Zach Payne, a low-level drug-dealer they interviewed the night of the murder and whose testimony turned out to be critical, even though he told investigators right off the bat that he knew nothing about the murder at the Taco Bell. We talked to him on the phone.
Zach Payne: Listen, I don’t wanna mess nothing up. What I need to do is go look in the newspapers and get my memory back right.
Liliana Segura: We don’t know exactly what Zach Payne was like 20 years ago, but we talked to him for a long, long time and honestly, he was so rambling, incoherent, and, frankly, paranoid, we could hardly follow the conversation, let alone take any of it as truth. But whether or not he was more reliable back in 1998, what Payne told investigators became the basis for the entire case. There was a man named Devonia Inman, he told them. Payne didn’t know him very well. But once, Inman had pointed a gun at him. Payne thought he’d be ‘very capable’ of committing this crime. Just to reiterate: a weird small-time drug dealer says he knows nothing about the crime, so the police focus their entire investigation on a man he mentions.
Jordan Smith: On September 21, 1998, two days after Donna Brown was murdered, Adel police officers arrested Devonia Inman at his aunt’s house for a probation violation. Here’s how he remembers it:
Devonia Inman: We was walking in the middle of the street, like on Monday, the day they came and arrested me. So, we were just walking. I didn’t think that it was for no murder or anything like that because I never committed no murder. I didn’t have no idea, so I didn’t have anything to hide, so I got in the back of the police car. They only asked me to talk to me. That’s what he said in front of everybody. He was like, “Do you mind if we question you or take you downtown and question you” and I’m like, “sure.” I got in the back of the police car.
Jordan Smith: They took Inman to the city jail, a five-minute drive from the parking lot where Donna Brown was shot. It was the last time Inman was free. A GBI agent asked to search Inman’s aunt’s house to see if there was a gun there. Inman’s aunt said no. Later that same evening, the investigators went to see Inman’s girlfriend, Christy Swain. The house at 412 Wildwood was just across the interstate from the Taco Bell. Swain had just moved there with her two sisters. Inman was there a lot. Steinberg from the GBI asked Swain if they could search her house for a gun. She said she’d only seen Inman with a gun once, but she said they could look. They didn’t find anything. Steinberg asked her where Inman was on Friday night. He was with her, she said, at the home on Wildwood, all night.
We caught up with her recently. She now lives in Ohio, back with her family. She’s had a hard time, struggling to raise seven kids. Her name is now Christy Lima.
Christy Lima: Okay, well I am Christy, Christy Lima. I’m Devonia’s ex-girlfriend, during that time. He was living with me during that time. Do you want me to tell what happened that day?
Liliana Segura: Lima was 19 years old. A single mom. She did what she could to get by. Sometimes she stripped at parties for extra cash. She says back then she told Jimmy Hill, the Adel police investigator, that she and Inman had gotten into a fight the night Donna Brown died. After they made up, he stayed home with her all night. He was watching her baby.
Christy Lima: I got ready to go to bed, and my son, Justice, woke up. So Devonia came back there, he got my baby, and basically he kept my baby all night. I mean, he didn’t ever leave out the house, like I was telling them before, how can he leave when he had my son all night, because the next morning my mom came over and he was still asleep on the couch with my son.
Jordan Smith: Steinberg was still interviewing her that night, when her two sisters came home. One of them agreed with what she said, but the other one, Marquetta Thomas, had more to say. Later that night, Thomas ended up at the Adel police station. She sat down with Steinberg and another GBI agent. She told them Inman had talked about “jacking and robbing” people in Adel. She also said she thought her sister would lie to protect him.
Jamy Steinberg: Let’s talk about Devonia first, has Devonia spoken of armed robbery plans or committing armed robberies or anything like that in the past?
Marquetta Thomas: Yes…
Jamy Steinberg: Tell us a little bit about that.
Marquetta Thomas: He’s- I just- always talking about he wants to rob a bank or a store…
Liliana Segura: In this police video of the interview, Marquetta Thomas sits in front of a desk. She’s wearing her uniform from Waffle House. Her hair is cropped short and dyed blonde. She wears wire-rimmed glasses. She uses her hands a lot when she talks.
Jamy Steinberg: How big was the gun?
Marquetta Thomas: About this big, not that big.
Jordan Smith: The following day, an Adel police officer interviewed Inman in jail. He told Inman that people were saying he’d killed Donna Brown. Inman denied it and said he’d never had a gun. But the next day, during a second interrogation, Inman admitted that he’d once borrowed a gun from his uncle. It was a .38 caliber revolver. Inman also told the cops what his girlfriend had already told them, that he’d been at her house the whole night. In case you missed that, Inman said he’d had a .38. The gun that killed Donna Brown was a .44. It’s not the same kind of gun.
Liliana Segura: Marquetta Thomas was eager to talk to us. She’s the sister of Inman’s then-girlfriend, Christy Lima, and she’s the one who told the cops she thought Inman could have killed Donna Brown. These days Thomas wears her hair long. She doesn’t dye it anymore. The day we met her, she had it in neat braids pulled back in a ponytail. It was July, but she wore long pants and a red sweater vest, along with a silver bowtie.
Marquetta Thomas: I’m Marquetta Thomas.
Jordan Smith: Nice to meet you.
Marquetta Thomas: Nice to meet you too.
Liliana Segura: Hi.
Marquetta Thomas: How you doing?
Liliana Segura: Good.
Marquetta Thomas: Marquetta.
Liliana Segura: I’m Liliana. It’s nice to meet you.
Marquetta Thomas: Nice to meet you.
Liliana Segura: Thomas lives in Baldwin, Georgia, a town two hours north of Atlanta and roughly half the size of Adel. She moved there after spending 14 years in prison for robbery. Her house is literally five minutes from where she did her time. One of the first things she told us: she really hated Devonia Inman.
Jordan Smith: I gather at the time you didn’t think much of him?
Marquetta Thomas: No, I really didn’t. Basically me and my two sisters, my baby sister Christian, my older sister, Tamekia. We were all staying in a subdivision called Dellwood Acres. I think it was like behind McDonald’s and like half of I-75, we were like under the underpass.
Liliana Segura: She says the night Donna Brown was killed, Inman was at their house, fighting with her sister.
Marquetta Thomas: My older sister had a blue station wagon. So later on that night, probably after midnight, maybe one or two o’clock in the morning we heard this big pop. We thought it was a gunshot. We looked out the windows, we didn’t see anybody, but when we went out the next morning, he had like literally stabbed all four of my sister’s tires, and that was the only vehicle for all of us, so I had a big, disgusted hate for him. Then the next day he pops up with groceries and diapers like nothing ever happened. I’m like, “Are you serious?” My sister’s like, “Yeah, I love him. Let him in.” I was like, “No, he’s not coming in.” So they end up going outside on the porch, and I end up leaving, because I didn’t want to be in the same household.
Jordan Smith: She told the cops a different story.
Marquetta Thomas: They were asking had we seen him that prior night or was he with us. That’s when I lied and was like, “Nope, he wasn’t there,” but he actually was beating up my sister that night. But the fight and the arguing, that probably happened around like, between 9, 10, 10:30, 11, whatnot.
Liliana Segura: But that same evening?
Marquetta Thomas: Yes. That’s basically his alibi. I don’t know why they didn’t correlate and put that together, because he was at our house beating up my sister.
Jordan Smith: She was mad at him for beating her sister, for slashing their tires. And the cops, they just kept harassing her.
Marquetta Thomas: I was working third shift at Waffle House, and probably a few nights later, the detectives or Adel police, whoever it was, they came to my job and started questioning me and asking me questions. They were asking like everybody that was riding through the neighborhood. I think I was either in the parking lot at Waffle House or getting ready to walk out, and they just swarmed in, like two or three cops. They were like, “Get in, we need to talk to you.” And then they started telling me about the lady that was killed and the car abandoned or whatnot, and have I heard or seen. I’m like, “Why would you ask or question me?” Like, you know what I’m saying? So, I can’t really remember like chronologically how it happened and what times, but they were like questioning me for about two weeks straight. They would come to my job, they would come to my house, they went to my mom’s. They was harassing our whole family.
Finally I was just like, “Yeah, Devonia probably did it,” because I was really angry and bitter at him. I literally hate him for beating on my baby sister.
Jordan Smith: It was a stupid, hateful lie to tell. But she just wanted the cops to leave her alone. And she wasn’t the only one with a wild story.
Liliana Segura: Wrongful convictions are never about just one thing. A lot of the time it’s a combination of factors: bad evidence, like junk forensics, or unreliable eyewitness identification. But a lot of the time, it starts with investigators who fail to do their job. They decide on a suspect and get tunnel vision. That’s what happened in this case. Some witnesses started changing their stories. Others had obvious reasons to testify against Devonia Inman that had nothing to do with whether or not he was guilty. None of that seemed to matter.
Jordan Smith: There was LarRisha Chapman. The other teenager who was working with Donna Brown the night she died. At first she told the GBI that nothing unusual happened at Taco Bell that night. Then, under pressure, she changed her story, said that while waiting for her ride that night she heard Devonia Inman’s voice coming from some weeds near the parking lot. Then, she took that back on the witness stand at Inman’s trial. And when the local paper offered a five-thousand dollar reward for information about the murder, a newspaper carrier came out with a completely implausible story about hearing a gunshot and seeing a black man speeding away. And then there was the jailhouse snitch, who told a GBI investigator that he and Inman had briefly shared a cell and that Inman had confessed to him. After revealing this “new information,” the snitch quickly asked the investigator if he might get released early for providing the damning testimony.
On January 11, 1999, four months after Donna Brown died, a Cook County grand jury indicted Devonia Inman for her murder. Soon after, district attorney Bob Ellis announced that he would seek the death penalty for Inman.
Liliana Segura: Just to recap, here’s the state’s case: the drug dealer who said he once saw Inman with a gun. The newspaper carrier. A teenager with a changing story. A snitch who wants out of jail bad. And Thomas, who said Inman talked about robbing people. She was about to change her story too. Devonia Inman swore he was innocent and no physical evidence tied him to the crime. No eyewitnesses, a bullet that didn’t match the gun. Early on, Marquetta Thomas tried to take back her story.
Marquetta Thomas: I was like, “He didn’t do it, yo.” And they just, they never paid any attention. I took the whole, I recanted the whole statement in court under oath. So I don’t see how that wasn’t applied to his case or a new hearing or whatever he was supposed to have or overturn his case or whatever. I did it way before getting sent to prison. Nobody would listen to me. They’re dirty, crooked, sheisty like all the movies and things I’ve seen coming up A&E and all this stuff. They are very corrupt and I think they were just looking to pin the crime on somebody to make their job lighter, easier, and I was a pawn in their game that they used. You know, I don’t know if they- Their interrogation tactics, like I’m not going to say they were forced, but it was coerced. It was verbal coercion, because they would say, “Wasn’t this this?” and I just kind of agreed. You know what I’m saying? So, I guess the story started getting formulated with bits and pieces they were telling me and I just fused the story together to get him out the picture.
Liliana Segura: She has an idea what Devonia Inman’s life is like now. She spent 14 years in prison and her son is serving an 80-year sentence. She thinks about Inman all the time.
Marquetta Thomas: Every time I talk to my son. Every time I open my refrigerator, because the liberties of just being free and walking in the grass barefoot or being allowed to open my own refrigerator when I want, when I hear a collect call on the phone from my son from a correctional institute.
Liliana Segura: Thomas has tried to take back her story about Inman killing Donna Brown a bunch of times and she’s not the only one. Over the last 20 years just about every one of the state’s witnesses has recanted.
Jordan Smith: And that’s not all. Ten years after Inman was convicted, investigators got proof that he is innocent and that the state’s theory of the case was wrong. The mask the cops missed when searching Donna Brown’s car? It had DNA on it and it wasn’t Devonia Inman’s. It was the DNA of another man. A man the cops had ignored during their investigation, even when they were told that he’d killed Donna Brown. A man who went on to murder at least two other people in Adel.
Liliana Segura: In the next episode, remember what we said before about wrongful convictions? That the real killer goes free? Yeah, we’re gonna talk about that. And how, even as Devonia Inman went on trial for his life, the case against him was unraveling. Meanwhile, the murders in Adel continued.
Murderville, Georgia is a production of The Intercept and Topic Studios. Alisa Roth is our producer. Ben Adair is our editor. Sound design, editing, and mixing by Bryan Pugh. Production assistance from Isabel Robertson. Our executive producer is Leital Molad. For The Intercept, Roger Hodge is our editor and Betsy Reed is the editor-in-chief. I’m Liliana Segura. And I’m Jordan Smith. You can read our series and see photos at theintercept.com/murderville. You can also follow us on Twitter @lilianasegura and @chronic_jordan. Talk to you next week. Can’t wait for more episodes? You can binge listen to the entire season ad-free now on Stitcher Premium. For a free month of Stitcher Premium, go to stitcherpremium.com/murderville and use promo code MURDERVILLE.