After 20 years in prison for a murder he insists he did not commit, Devonia Inman returns to court for an evidentiary hearing that could finally help him prove his innocence. Testimony reveals that the state hid evidence tying Hercules Brown to the 1998 murder of Donna Brown and that Inman’s trial lawyers dropped the ball, sitting on information that could have cleared him years ago. In a rare move, the presiding judge signs an order that could change the case forever.
Jordan Smith: Hi Murderville listeners. It’s been almost two years since we last talked to you about Devonia Inman’s case. And needless to say, a lot has happened since then.
As you might recall, back in September 2019 we posted an update episode about a truly extraordinary ruling from the Georgia Supreme Court. In a unanimous opinion, the justices sided with Devonia to allow his legal team to pursue evidence that could finally prove his innocence. In fact, not only did they give the green light to keep pushing for a new trial, they also expressed grave doubts about Devonia’s conviction.
Liliana Segura: Here’s what then-presiding Judge David Nahmias wrote at the time:
“During my decade of service on this court, I have reviewed over 1,500 murder cases in various forms. 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.”
We’ve been waiting a long time to be able to update you. And finally, we have something pretty exciting to share.
From The Intercept, I’m Liliana Segura.
Jordan Smith: I’m Jordan Smith. Welcome back to Murderville, Georgia.
Jordan Smith: First, let’s do a quick recap. Back in 1998, Donna Brown, a manager at the Taco Bell in tiny Adel, Georgia, was murdered in the parking lot after closing up for the night. Twenty-year-old Devonia Inman, who was new to town, was quickly jailed and charged with her murder. The state would seek the death penalty. But while he was awaiting trial, three more people were brutally murdered in this town of about 5,000. One of those murders remains unsolved.
But the others, a double murder of a beloved shopkeeper and his employee, were committed in broad daylight, and the killer, a man named Hercules Brown, was quickly caught and ended up pleading guilty to the crime.
Devonia was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Donna Brown. But he has always maintained his innocence, insisting he had nothing to do with her murder. What’s more, there were rumors around town the whole time that Hercules Brown was the real killer. Hercules — no relation to Donna — also worked at the Taco Bell.
At Devonia’s trial, his lawyers tried to point the finger at Hercules with two witnesses. One witness said Hercules had tried to get her to help him rob the Taco Bell. Another said Hercules had confessed. But, as you might recall, the district attorney, Bob Ellis, balked at this, saying it wasn’t credible evidence. And the judge agreed. So the jury never heard from these witnesses.
Liliana Segura: Devonia reached out to the Georgia Innocence Project not long after he was convicted. They took the case. It took years, but they eventually won permission to test a key piece of evidence for DNA: a homemade mask, made from a pair of gray sweatpants, with eye holes cut out of it. It had been found in Donna Brown’s car after her murder. Almost 10 years after Devonia was sentenced to life in prison, testing of the mask revealed a single genetic profile: Hercules Brown.
Devonia had been tried as the sole perpetrator of this crime. And at trial, prosecutors said the killer had worn the mask. But once the DNA came back as a match to Hercules, the state insisted that none of that mattered. And that it didn’t exonerate Devonia. In 2014, the trial court — and the Georgia Supreme Court — agreed. They denied Devonia a new trial.
Jordan Smith: After this — thanks largely to Jessica Cino, who at the time was a law professor and dean at Georgia State University — Devonia got a crack pro bono defense team from the prestigious firm Troutman Pepper (it used to be known as Troutman Sanders). And they dug up new evidence that the state had failed to turn over to Devonia’s defense before trial, which is a legal no-no; a constitutional violation. Basically, they’d found a new witness who said Hercules had confessed to her. And she tried to tell the cops, way back in 1998.
Liliana Segura: Devonia’s lawyers sought an evidentiary hearing on this issue and a new trial for Devonia. In July 2019, Lookout Mountain Chief Judge Kristina Cook Graham granted their request for a hearing, which didn’t make the state happy. They appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court, which shot them down.
And as we mentioned at the start of this episode, that ruling was a huge breakthrough. In September 2019, the justices said in no uncertain terms that the state should stand down and stop blocking Devonia’s efforts to win a new trial. In fact, the justices said that they themselves had gotten it wrong when they reviewed the case back in 2014.
Jordan Smith: We knew that there would be an evidentiary hearing at some point. We just didn’t know when. But before it took place, Devonia’s lawyers were given access to a bunch of new documents. And also, they were going to get the chance to talk to Hercules Brown.
The pandemic slowed this process down a lot. The deposition of Hercules was finally scheduled for December 17, 2020. But when it came time for him to be interviewed, he refused. Prison staff caught this moment on video.
Unknown speaker: Recording has started. Is your name Hercules Brown?
Hercules Brown: Yes, sir.
Unknown speaker: Were you informed that you had a video court appearance that you needed to report for?
Hercules Brown: Yes, sir, about two minutes ago. About a minute ago.
Unknown speaker: Well, are you going to that appearance?
Hercules Brown: No, sir.
Unknown speaker: So you are refusing?
Hercules Brown: Yes, sir.
Unknown speaker: Thank you —
Liliana Segura: In this video, which was provided to Devonia’s attorneys, Hercules is standing in front of what looks like an entryway at Ware State Prison. He’s got on a blue watch cap and jacket over his prison whites. It says Department of Corrections on the back. He’s shifting his weight back and forth and is looking around. It’s not exactly easy to gauge what he might be thinking, but his posture is sort of nonchalant — almost dismissive.
At the time the video was filmed, the evidentiary hearing was supposed to happen in just a matter of weeks. In January 2021. But it was rescheduled because of Covid. In the meantime, however, Devonia’s lawyers filed what’s called a motion in limine — these are filed before a trial or hearing and usually ask a judge to agree to either include or exclude certain evidence. But here, Devonia’s lawyers were asking for something unusual. They asked Judge Graham to draw what’s known as an “adverse inference” from Hercules’s refusal to provide testimony. In other words, to conclude it was a sign that he was guilty of murdering Donna Brown.
Here’s what they wrote: “Mr. Brown’s refusal to provide testimony is not the only factor for the court to consider in determining whether to draw an adverse inference. Substantial corroborating evidence indicates that Hercules Brown committed the murder of Donna Brown.”
Jordan Smith: This adverse inference thing may sound a bit counterintuitive. Under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, a person has the right against self-incrimination. And, in the criminal system, if a person invokes that right, you’re not supposed to assume it is indicative of their guilt.
But even though Devonia’s case started out as a criminal matter, once it moves into post-conviction appeals, it is actually considered a civil case. And in civil courts, a judge can infer guilt if a witness invokes their Fifth Amendment right. This doesn’t happen often, but it’s perfectly legal.
If the judge were to assume Hercules’s guilt, that would certainly be a good sign for Devonia that she’s paying attention and finds the evidence of his innocence compelling.
The state didn’t like any of this, of course. And wrote a reply that was mostly technical bullshit, arguing that Hercules wasn’t actually required to attend the court-ordered interview.
Lawyers rehashed the same discredited evidence prosecutors used at Devonia’s trial back in 2001, including statements from multiple witnesses who later recanted. Some said that investigators with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, or GBI, had coerced them into saying things that weren’t true.
In any event, the state’s lawyers argued that even if Judge Graham did draw an adverse inference from Hercules’s refusal to cooperate, it didn’t mean Devonia was innocent.
Liliana Segura: So I’m here outside the courthouse. It’s about quarter of 9 and Devonia Inman’s evidentiary hearing is going to start shortly. It’s been a long wait for him and for his family.
The hearing finally happened on Monday, June 28, at the Chattooga County Superior Court in downtown Summerville. It’s a rural town in northwest Georgia even smaller than Adel. The hearing was held here because this is the part of the state where Devonia was incarcerated back when his lawyers sought the hearing in 2018.
The courthouse is on the main drag, and you can hear the traffic going by from inside the courtroom. There’s a gigantic American flag out front. It’s tied to the columns and covers up the whole entrance to the building. And just off to the side, there’s a new Confederate monument — installed in 2014 — extolling the virtues of fallen soldiers who’d fought to “preserve freedom and liberty.”
[Walking into the courtroom.]
All right. I’m going in.
Inside, Devonia was one of the only Black people in the courtroom. He’d gotten permission to ditch his prison whites in favor of a proper suit. He was wearing a gray collared shirt with a black tie — and a white face mask. His mom and dad, Dinah and David Ray, had driven from California.
Devonia just waved. You can tell he’s smiling under his mask.
Unknown speaker: All rise.
Kristina Cook Graham: Please be seated, ladies and gentlemen. Good morning. I’m Judge Graham. Have a seat.
Liliana Segura: Judge Graham wore a gray dress with pink and black flowers on it. No standard black robe. But she did have a blue surgical mask.
Kristina Cook Graham: I don’t mean to be disrespectful. We wear robes in this circuit for jury trials only generally, and in northwest Georgia right now, it is very hot. [Laughter.]
Jordan Smith: Before the hearing officially started, Judge Graham made her decision about the adverse inference thing. She granted it. Exactly as Devonia’s lawyers had asked. They’d written up a “proposed order.” The judge just crossed out the “proposed” part and signed it. Here’s Jessica Cino. She was in the courtroom when this happened.
Jessica Cino: I was not expecting it. The adverse inference is an exceptional and extraordinary rare remedy. It is a ruling from the judge that based upon Hercules’s silence every time he gets asked if he has killed Donna Brown, which again is his Fifth Amendment right, that despite that, she is going to treat that silence as Hercules effectively saying, “I killed Donna Brown.” She’s filling that silent gap that has always existed. You cannot use that in a case against Hercules. If Hercules ever got tried for the murder of Donna Brown, his silence could not be used against him. That’s his Fifth Amendment right.
However, for Devonia, what the judge has done here is said, “We’re now going to, in your post-conviction proceedings, which is asking for a new trial, assume that Hercules has now admitted to killing Donna Brown.” And that, from a legal standpoint, is a tremendous development for Devonia’s case.
Jordan Smith: In his opening statement, Tom Reilly, one of Devonia’s attorneys, laid out the case for Judge Graham.
Tom Reilly: Mr. Inman has been wrongfully imprisoned for almost 23 years for a murder that he did not commit. He has maintained his innocence from day one. He was convicted 20 years ago, almost to the day, in a deeply flawed and unfair trial that failed to uphold and protect his constitutional rights.
We will focus our evidentiary presentation before the court on two fundamental constitutional violations that require that Mr. Inman receive a fair trial.
Jordan Smith: First, there was the prosecution’s failure to turn over exculpatory evidence to Devonia’s defense attorneys.
What’s known as a Brady violation. After a famous Supreme Court ruling that said withholding evidence violates a person’s constitutional rights.
Tom Reilly: Now, we don’t have to show that the state hid this information on purpose. Whether it was intentional or just negligent, it’s still a Brady violation.
Jordan Smith: In particular, Reilly brought up police reports related to Hercules Brown that Devonia’s attorneys had never seen. Back in September 2000 — well before Devonia was tried — Hercules was arrested in connection with an attempted robbery at a grocery store in Adel.
Tom Reilly: When Hercules Brown was arrested, the police found in his car a gun, crack cocaine, and a homemade ski mask with eye holes cut out of it. The state had these police reports in the fall of 2000, many months before Mr. Inman’s trial in June of 2001. But they concealed that. They failed to provide them to Mr. Inman’s counsel despite repeated requests by the defense for all exculpatory evidence.
Despite repeated assurances and representations to the court and to defense counsel by the state that they had turned over everything and that the defense had everything the state had. Despite knowing that Hercules Brown worked at Taco Bell with Donna Brown and that a homemade ski mask was found in her car after she was killed.
Liliana Segura: The second constitutional violation was the fact that Devonia’s trial attorneys did a pretty crappy job. And this compounded the Brady violations, Reilly argued.
Devonia’s lead attorney at trial, a man named David Perry, died in 2015. But his other lawyer was a woman named Melinda Ryals. She was actually appointed to the case first. But she didn’t have any experience with death penalty cases. So she asked for Perry to get involved. Perry led the defense team at trial, but soon after Devonia was convicted in 2001, he withdrew from the case, leaving Ryals in charge. It was up to her to try to get Devonia a new trial.
Tom Reilly: At some point she obtained that report showing Hercules Brown had been arrested with a homemade ski mask, a gun, and drugs in September 2000 in Adel. She did nothing with that information. She told no one about it.
Liliana Segura: Ryals testified at the hearing. She wore a gray woven blazer with frayed edges. Ryals was clearly less than thrilled to be taking the stand. She emphasized that she was only “second chair” on the case — meaning she wasn’t the main person in charge.
But she did have one very important job: looking into the rumors that Hercules Brown was the real killer and finding out if there was concrete evidence to back them up. One of the best ways to do this would have been to see if there was any link between Hercules and the mask found in Donna Brown’s car. But there’s no indication this happened. At the hearing, Ryals said she didn’t recall any testing being done on the mask before trial. In fact, she said she didn’t remember much about the mask at all.
Here’s Ryals, responding to questions from Troutman attorney Tiffany Bracewell.
Melinda Ryals: I do not recall the mask being entered into evidence.
Tiffany Bracewell: And if I represent to you that it was, trial exhibit number 24 was the mask, do you have any reason to believe that it was not, in fact, admitted?
Melinda Ryals: I wouldn’t, no, I wouldn’t speak that, no.
Tiffany Bracewell: Is this mask unique?
Melinda Ryals: It … yes.
Tiffany Bracewell: Why was the mask significant in Mr. Inman’s case?
Melinda Ryals: I don’t recall. Are you talking significant to the state or —
Tiffany Bracewell: Let me ask different. Was the mask, did the mask have any significance to Mr. Inman’s defense?
Melinda Ryals: I don’t recall.
Jordan Smith: Honestly, one of the most shocking things to come out of the hearing was just how much critical evidence Ryals had in her possession that she never used. This evidence basically falls into two buckets.
The first is the Brady bucket, which contains the September 2000 police report. It’s clear she did not have this information before Devonia was tried. But she did get it at some point after trial and should have understood that it was Brady material. And just how important it would have been at trial.
Remember, the defense tried to put on evidence that Hercules was responsible for Donna Brown’s murder. But that evidence was in the form of witness testimony, folks who said they’d heard things about his involvement. The police report was potentially more powerful precisely because it came from law enforcement.
And this gets to her second bucket, which is evidence of ineffective assistance of counsel. A nice way of saying that she fucked up.
It seems Ryals didn’t realize the significance of the Brady violation. And if she did, she still didn’t do anything about it — like use it to bolster her motion for a new trial.
There was also a bunch of really important evidence pointing toward Hercules that she got later while she was still Devonia’s only attorney of record. And she didn’t use any of it either. And then didn’t turn it over to the lawyers who later took over the case — including the team from Troutman Pepper.
Liliana Segura: It wasn’t until 2019 that Reilly and his colleagues got access to her full files. There were thousands of pages.
Tiffany Bracewell: How large was your file in your estimation?
Melinda Ryals: I do not recall. Maybe a banker’s box, or two banker’s boxes.
Tiffany Bracewell: If I represent to you that you produced in this proceeding more than 15,000 pages to my office, do you have any reason to believe that’s not correct?
Melinda Ryals: No, ma’am.
Liliana Segura: Among the things buried in these files was a series of handwritten notes. One set documented an interview Ryals conducted with a man from Adel named James Overstreet, after Devonia’s trial. At a time when she was supposedly working on his appeal.
Ryals didn’t recall who Overstreet was. And we didn’t recognize his name either — it’s nowhere in the original GBI report or in our own files. But Overstreet was clearly friendly with Hercules Brown. And according to Ryals’s handwritten notes, Overstreet told her that Hercules had confessed to Donna Brown’s murder before Devonia was even arrested for the crime.
If true, this was obviously a big deal, especially since Overstreet would be at least the third person who Hercules had supposedly confessed to around this same time.
Tiffany Bracewell: What did Mr. Overstreet tell you about the Taco Bell murder?
Melinda Ryals: He said that Hercules had worked at Taco Bell — and I’m not reading the whole thing — told him that he had robbed Taco Bell, that the woman turned around and said, “Herc don’t do this,” or “Hercules don’t do this, please don’t do this.” He had to kill her to leave no witnesses.
Liliana Segura: Did you hear that? He said he had to kill Donna Brown so there would be no witnesses.
Then there was a GBI report that they found. And this one is weird. Apparently at some point after Devonia was convicted, Ryals went to a witness interview conducted by the GBI. One of the prosecutors on Devonia’s case, a guy named Tim Eidson, was there too.
Jordan Smith: Now, why Ryals was at this interview is anyone’s guess. But what happens is pretty wild — a bit convoluted, but important.
The witness being interviewed was a woman you’ve heard from before named Christy Lima. She was Devonia’s girlfriend back in 1998. And she had a story about someone else Hercules had confessed to. This person, a woman Ryals referred to only by the name Hewitt during the hearing, told Lima that Hercules had confessed to killing Donna Brown. According to Lima’s account, Hercules told Hewitt that he’d intended to tell the cops it was him, but his mother talked him out of it. And Hercules’s mom, Lucinda Brown, had threatened Hewitt, telling her not to say anything about what Hercules had said. If Hewitt didn’t stay quiet, Lucinda, who worked for the Division of Family and Children Services, would take Hewitt’s kid away.
In the document, Lima is referred to as Thomas. We’re not entirely sure why. It was actually her sister’s last name. Here is Ryals reading from this report.
Melinda Ryals: As to the Taco Bell murder, on page three of the document that Thomas stated Hewitt said that Hewitt had a conversation with Brown a few weeks ago, and that Brown confessed to Hewitt that Brown committed the Bennett and Browning homicides, as well as the Taco Bell murder.
Jordan Smith: Bennett and Browning are the shopkeeper and his employee. The murders Hercules pleaded guilty to.
Melinda Ryals: Thomas stated Hewitt said that Brown was going to confess to the police that he did the killings in both cases and take whatever punishment was given along and not tell on anyone involved. Thomas stated that Hewitt said Brown told her that Brown’s mother talked him out of confessing and pleading not guilty. Thomas added that Hewitt said that Brown’s mother told Hewitt personally not to tell anything Hewitt knew of this case, again, threatening to take Hewitt’s child.
Tiffany Bracewell: And what did you do with this information?
Melinda Ryals: I don’t recall.
Tiffany Bracewell: Do you recall sharing with Mr. Inman that you had learned this information?
Melinda Ryals: No, I do not.
Jordan Smith: In different ways, the Overstreet and Hewitt stories are just bombshells.
Let’s start with Overstreet. After the hearing, we got a copy of Ryals’s notes from her interview with him. And Overstreet comes across as credible, in part because he offered up some side details that we know are accurate.
Liliana Segura: But there’s something even more intriguing about the Hewitt piece of this. Something that, if true, would confirm an aspect of Devonia’s case that has been lurking in the background for years.
We knew that Hercules’s mom, Lucinda Brown, was a powerful person in Adel. And that she used her power to protect Hercules when he got in trouble. One former Adel cop told us that they frequently bit their tongue with Lucinda because the police relied on her in child abuse investigations. So, for example, when Hercules got arrested in September 2000, Lucinda demanded that the Adel cops release him. And they did.
You might remember, there was another thing we found out about Lucinda, which is one of the most insane parts of this case. It was what the former prosecutor, Eidson, told us. That police and prosecutors never considered Hercules a suspect in the Taco Bell murder because his mom told them Hercules had an alibi. That he was at home, in bed, when Donna Brown was killed. Eidson has since died, but here’s what he told us back then:
Tim Eidson: She said that at the time of the Taco Bell murder, that Hercules Brown was at home asleep. And she gave an alibi for him. In any event, she gave an alibi for Hercules and there wasn’t any reason to disbelieve her at the time, I mean, she was a well-respected citizen.
Jordan Smith: This is obviously ridiculous. And spoke volumes not only about the incompetence of the whole investigation into Donna Brown’s murder, but also about Lucinda’s influence.
We’d always heard that people were worried about coming forward and pointing the finger at Hercules, because they were afraid Lucinda would use the power of her position to retaliate by taking away their kids.
The story about Hewitt is the first time we’ve heard of anyone explicitly saying that Lucinda had threatened this. And telling law enforcement about it. Granted, in this GBI report it’s coming secondhand from Lima, but there was plenty for investigators to follow up on, especially when you consider who Hewitt is, which we didn’t realize until after the hearing, when we got a copy of this document.
Hewitt is Sharon Hewitt, Hercules’s ex-girlfriend — and according to the GBI interview, the mother of his child. According to the document, Hewitt left Adel for Valdosta in order to get away from Lucinda. Given that Valdosta is in a different county, this would make sense if she was actually afraid of Lucinda’s alleged threat.
Liliana Segura: We tried to reach Hewitt years back but we were unsuccessful. We tried her again after the hearing. We never heard back. We reached out to Overstreet too. He didn’t get back to us either.
Voicemail: Hello, we are not available now. Please leave your name and phone number after the beep. We will return your call. [Beep.]
Liliana Segura: Hi, this is a message for Lucinda Brown. Ms. Brown, my name is Liliana Segura and I’m a reporter with The Intercept and my colleague Jordan Smith and I actually reached you a few years ago to talk about the case of the murder of Donna Brown in Adel, Georgia —
Sean Brown: Hello.
Liliana Segura: — many years ago —
Sean Brown: Hello.
Liliana Segura: Oh, hi.
Sean Brown: Hello.
Liliana Segura: Yeah.
Sean Brown: How you doing, ma’am?
Liliana Segura: Hi. Yeah, I’m OK. I was looking for Lucinda Brown.
Sean Brown: I’m sorry, she’s not here right now. This is her son. What can I help you with, ma’am?
Liliana Segura: We actually spoke to her many years ago about the case of Donna Brown, who was murdered in Adel at the Taco Bell in 1998. We specifically reached out because we’ve been investigating that case for a long time, and we actually produced a podcast and series of stories. And as I’m sure you’re aware, Hercules Brown was considered an alternate suspect in that case. [Crosstalk.]
Sean Brown: I’m not aware. Hello, hello, ma’am, I know you want to do an interview. Hey, I don’t give you the authority to record this call, please. Also, we have no comment on anything regarding any of those cases. And I’m her son, Sean Brown. I’m her guardian.
Liliana Segura: Hello?
Jordan Smith: I think he hung up.
Liliana Segura: We described the Hewitt and Overstreet information as bombshells because they would have been crucial to Devonia’s appeal. They also confirm what Devonia knew to be true almost two decades ago: that Ryals had documents in her possession that could help him. And he was desperate to get ahold of those files.
Testimony at the hearing revealed that Devonia had repeatedly asked Ryals to turn over all the documents related to his case. And she basically ignored him. Finally, in the summer of 2003, Devonia filed a complaint with the Georgia State Bar saying that Ryals was not communicating with him — that she was pretty much just letting him languish in prison.
Ryals clearly remembered this. And it seemed to piss her off.
Tiffany Bracewell: What did Mr. Inman complain about with respect to your performance? Not Mr. Perry.
Melinda Ryals: To my performance? “Specifically, due to Ms. Ryals’s unethical conduct, lies, and misrepresentation of a lawyer elected to do only one thing …”
Jordan Smith: Ryals was sort of speed reading the complaint Devonia filed. And as she did, she grew increasingly agitated and defensive, as if Devonia was being unfair to her. At one point, the lawyer questioning her is like, OK, enough of that, but Ryals tries to go on, saying, Oh, I could read more.
Tiffany Bracewell: Thank you, Ms. Ryals.
Melinda Ryals: Oh, it goes further. Do you want the rest of it?
Tiffany Bracewell: No. You don’t need to read the whole document. I’m happy to ask you a question. In this report, Mr. Inman again requests certain files from you. Is that correct?
Melinda Ryals: Yes, ma’am.
Tiffany Bracewell: And did you provide those files to Mr. Inman?
Melinda Ryals: Not to my recollection.
Liliana Segura: After Ryals testified, the court went into a brief recess. I stepped into the hallway to talk to Cino about what we’d just heard.
Jessica Cino: Realistically, ineffective assistance of counsel is a high bar to clear. Now, what generally helps those along is that the original attorney is like, “You know what? I was underwater. I had way too many cases.” And they, in effect, throw themself under the bus in admitting, “It was bad. My representation fell below what we would attribute to a normal lawyer or reasonable lawyer in these circumstances.”
Liliana Segura: But instead, Ryals appeared to be doing the opposite.
Jessica Cino: She has dug in hard. I mean, you saw, she was very upset by just even bringing up the bar complaint. I don’t know what switch flipped. It almost seemed that she was pissed at Devonia for bringing a bar complaint when she wasn’t actually doing her job of giving him the files he kept requesting.
Liliana Segura: We tried to interview Ryals for the podcast years back. But she refused. We tried her again after the hearing. She still didn’t want to talk.
Jordan Smith: The next and last witness was veteran defense attorney August “Bud” Siemon. He was brought on to handle Devonia’s direct appeals. He took over after Ryals just dropped the ball. And it turns out, the failures of the original defense team screwed him over too.
Here’s Devonia’s attorney Tom Reilly asking him about that.
Tom Reilly: And what was your understanding of why you were being retained?
August Siemon: Well, initially, when I was retained, the problem in his case was that he had been sitting in prison for several years and nothing was happening in his case.
Jordan Smith: His first priority was finding evidence that could win Devonia a new trial.
August Siemon: I specifically went looking for the mask, because this case, my representation started right around the time that DNA evidence was just starting to really come out. And I thought that if I could find the mask, it might have DNA on it, and that would be the breakthrough that we were looking for.
Jordan Smith: But it turned out that no one knew where the mask was.
Tom Reilly: And what do you do to try to find the mask?
August Siemon: Well, I called everybody. I called the court reporter, I think, first, to see if she had the evidence, and she didn’t have it. I called the district attorney’s office. And I think I spoke to the district attorney at the time.
Tom Reilly: In any event, you never got your hands on the mask.
August Siemon: I never got my hand on the mask. Apparently, they had two boxes of evidence in the courthouse and they only showed me one.
Jordan Smith: Reilly showed him the September 2000 report detailing Hercules’s arrest for the attempted grocery store robbery. The one where they found a gun and another homemade mask in the trunk.
August Siemon: I never saw this. This was Adel police?
Jordan Smith: He studied the report. And right, away the implications were pretty clear.
Tom Reilly: So you didn’t receive this report from anybody during the course of your representation?
August Siemon: No, absolutely not. I can say with certainty that I didn’t. I would have done something about it if I’ve seen it.
Tom Reilly: What would you have done?
August Siemon: Well, I would have expanded the motion for a new trial and made the specific argument that Brady was violated. Clearly, I mean, this is the Adel Police Department. Adel’s a small town. The state, the local police, and the prosecutors must have known that this evidence existed, and they didn’t turn it over. That would have been, that would have been a slam dunk Brady issue. And it would have tied — it could have tied Hercules Brown into the — it would have tied Hercules Brown even more strongly into the murder that Devonia was convicted of.
Liliana Segura: On cross examination, the state’s lawyer, an assistant attorney general named Paula Smith, asked Siemon a series of pretty confusing questions. The point seemed to be to suggest that Devonia’s lawyers at trial did have information about Hercules’s run-ins with the law. So, you know, that the whole thing about the September 2000 police report wasn’t really such a big deal. But when Reilly took over the questioning again, he asked Siemon to read a portion of the trial transcript out loud. Where DA Bob Ellis is speaking. And denying there’s anything out there to indicate that Hercules was a plausible alternate suspect.
Tom Reilly: And what does Mr. Ellis there on line 14 say?
August Siemon: “There’s not any indicia, whatsoever, that Hercules Brown had anything to do with this.”
Jordan Smith: When Tom Reilly was laying out the case for Devonia’s innocence to Judge Graham, he emphasized the 2019 Georgia Supreme Court ruling that we told you about earlier. Here’s Reilly again.
Tom Reilly: In short, your honor, the question for you to answer after you have considered the entire record before you is this: Is this a conviction worth defending and upholding — a conviction that justifies confidence in the result and in the fairness and integrity of our justice system? On behalf of Mr. Inman, we respectfully submit that it is not.
Liliana Segura: One of the most memorable parts of the hearing was the reaction Reilly’s opening statement got from the law enforcement officers sitting next to Devonia. The guys who were there to transport him to and from court and to ostensibly ensure that people in the courtroom were safe from him. They kept shooting each other looks. Even under their masks, their expressions made clear that they were pretty sure the state’s case, and its efforts to keep Devonia locked up, were a cruel joke.
And again, it was really hard to miss the racial dynamics in the room. Devonia and the guards were Black. Just about all the other people in the courtroom were white — the people holding Devonia’s life in their hands, including the state’s lawyers, who show no signs of giving up their fight to keep Devonia in prison.
Jessica Cino: It’s ridiculous. It’s a ridiculous position to draw this hard line in the sand after you have had such a deliberate, intentional ruling from the Georgia Supreme Court basically saying stand down. Stop pushing or stop fighting this man’s attempt to get a new trial because this is keeping us justices up at night. How can you keep pursuing this when the Supreme Court of your state has said stop?
Liliana Segura: For Devonia’s parents, Dinah and David Ray, the whole thing was emotionally exhausting. For almost a year, Dinah had written to us to make sure we knew that Devonia was going to be in court for this hearing. First it was set for October 2020, then January, then April. When it finally looked like this court date would stick, she sent a text message: “Omg! I’m so nervous and excited at the same time. I will definitely be there with bells on.”
Liliana Segura [in courtroom]: So it’s about, it’s not quite 4:20 and they’re wrapping up, much earlier than expected. Devonia’s parents are going up to give him a hug. His mom is hugging him. You can tell she’s smiling under her mask. Now his dad is hugging him. It was an emotional day for them.
Liliana Segura: I went up to talk to Dinah and David after the hearing. Where David was focused on when Devonia would be coming home, Dinah was relieved that the hearing had finally taken place.
[In the courthouse.]
Dinah Ray: I’m just, I mean words just can’t express the joy I feel for him. This court date, it’s taken its toll on Devonia and the entire family. So I’m really, really happy to see this day come. And I’m hoping and praying that he’ll be coming home soon.
Liliana Segura: Yeah. Yeah. I don’t want to keep you too long, but I’m curious what it was like for you to listen to Melinda Ryals answer these questions about her performance.
Dinah Ray: You know, I’ve been, I was unhappy with her performance then, and I wasn’t too happy with it there.
David Ray: For me, it just brought all these emotions back. It brought the whole trial over and got me all emotional.
Liliana Segura: From the moment they hugged Devonia and throughout Reilly’s opening, David was wiping tears from his eyes. It was the first time they’d been allowed to touch their son in some 20 years.
[In the courthouse.]
Dinah Ray: I got to get two hugs. I’m really happy about that because even when I visit him, it’s been through the window, so this is great.
Liliana Segura: Yeah. What’s it like to see him dressed in a tie and shirt?
Dinah Ray: That’s my old son. [Crosstalk.] He used to love to dress up. So it was great seeing him. I can’t believe how grown up he’s gotten. He left as a boy, now he’s a man. So I was really happy to see him and definitely happy to get a hug.
Jordan Smith: Cino also got to hug Devonia. This meant a lot to her too. She’s been Devonia’s fiercest advocate for years.
Jessica Cino: I’ve seen Devonia over the course of the last 6 1/2 years but always behind glass or behind bars, if you will. I mean, I know it has taken years to get to this point, but none of us have forgotten him and pushing this case forward as much as we can.
Jordan Smith: And she thought it was really nice that the judge got to see how much support there was for him.
Jessica Cino: It’s great for the judge to have that human component to it because I think a lot of times, judges considering post-conviction cases, you’re somewhat removed. You read all of these briefs, you read the evidence, but seeing not a courtroom full of people, but a lot of people in your courtroom for this one guy, I think, has to have some effect.
Jordan Smith: So now it’s up to the judge. And it’ll take a while. The lawyers on both sides will file post-hearing briefs trying to highlight things from the hearing and from the law that support their case. There are a few possible outcomes.
The judge could deny Devonia’s request for a new trial. Or she could grant it. Either way, the losing side would have the opportunity to appeal, again, to the Georgia Supreme Court, which has made its position clear. If Devonia wins, the case would likely be kicked back to Adel, and prosecutors there would have to decide if they want to try him again. But given where the case stands, that seems unlikely. Frankly, there’s no way they would win. And they know that. Or at least they should.
So we’ll be back. As soon as we know what happens next.
For now, thanks so much for listening.
Liliana Segura: Murderville, Georgia is a production of The Intercept and Topic Studios. This episode was edited by Andrea Jones, produced by Laura Flynn and Jose Olivares, and mixed by Rick Kwan. For The Intercept, Betsy Reed is the editor-in-chief. I’m Liliana Segura.
Jordan Smith: 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. We’re also hard at work on season two: Murderville, Texas. Keep an eye out for it.