More than 20 years after Devonia Inman was sentenced to life in prison for a murder he swears he did not commit, a judge in Georgia has overturned his conviction, writing that state misconduct and woefully inadequate defense lawyering rendered Inman’s 2001 conviction unconstitutional.

“Either of these constitutional violations, standing alone, demonstrates the fundamental unfairness of Mr. Inman’s trial, undermines the court’s confidence in the outcome of that trial and related conviction, and justifies granting … relief,” Lookout Mountain Chief Judge Kristina Cook Graham wrote in a 28-page order filed November 16.

The ruling sets up a choice for the state: Retry Inman for the 1998 murder of 43-year-old Donna Brown or release him. “We are hopeful that the court’s order will finally bring an end to this matter, and that Mr. Inman will be reunited with his family as soon as possible,” said Tom Reilly, one of Inman’s attorneys.

▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​▄​No pages

Inman’s case was the subject of “Murderville, Georgia,” a podcast and four-part series released by The Intercept in 2018. The investigation revealed how shoddy police work by local law enforcement and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation not only led to a wrongful conviction, but also left the real murderer free to kill again.

Brown was a single mother and the night manager at a Taco Bell in Adel, a small town in South Georgia. She was shot in the face on September 19, 1998, while leaving work. The killer took a bank bag containing $1,700 that Brown was carrying, along with her car, which was dumped in the nearby parking lot of an abandoned Pizza Hut. While the money was never found, a key piece of evidence was left in the car: a homemade mask made from a pair of gray sweatpants, with eyeholes cut out of it.

Neither the mask nor any other physical evidence tied Inman to the crime. Multiple witnesses who initially implicated Inman recanted their statements at his 2001 trial. Nevertheless, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

In the meantime, three more brutal murders rocked Adel, a town of roughly 5,000 people. In April 2000, as Inman awaited trial, a man named Shailesh Patel was beaten to death at home. That crime has never been solved. Later the same year, a beloved shopkeeper, William Bennett, and his employee, Rebecca Browning, were bludgeoned to death in broad daylight inside Bennett’s store. A man named Hercules Brown was quickly arrested for the double murder and eventually pleaded guilty.

Hercules, who worked at the Taco Bell, had long been rumored to be Donna Brown’s real killer. A decade after Inman was convicted of her murder, DNA lifted from the mask left in her car was matched to Hercules. Yet neither Hercules’s proven violence nor the DNA was enough to convince the courts that Inman’s case merited a second look. And the Georgia Attorney General’s Office has fought tooth and nail to uphold Inman’s conviction.

Inman was able to get back into court after a pro bono defense team from the Atlanta firm Troutman Pepper found new evidence of Inman’s innocence and Hercules’s guilt, which they argued had been illegally withheld from Inman at trial. In the summer of 2019, Graham, the judge, granted an evidentiary hearing to consider claims that the state had violated Inman’s rights by withholding exculpatory evidence and that he’d received ineffective representation at trial. The AG fought back, arguing to the Georgia Supreme Court that Inman was procedurally barred from raising the constitutional violations at all.

The Supreme Court had previously refused to review Inman’s case after the DNA evidence first came to light. But this time, the court roundly rejected the AG’s position, paving the way for the evidentiary hearing. In an extraordinary concurring opinion, then-presiding Judge David Nahmias expressed regret over the court’s earlier decision.

“During my decade of service on this court, I have reviewed over 1,500 murder cases in various forms,” Nahmias wrote. “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.”

hercules-1543805686

Hercules Brown.

Photo: Georgia Department of Corrections

A Trove of Critical Evidence

After repeated delays due to the pandemic, the evidentiary hearing finally took place at the Chattooga County Superior Court this June. In preparation for the hearing, Inman’s attorneys had been granted access to thousands of pages of records held by his former attorney Melinda Ryals, as well as permission to interview Hercules Brown. But when it came time for the deposition, Hercules refused to be interviewed.

At the start of the hearing, Graham said that she would draw an “adverse inference” from Hercules’s refusal to cooperate. In other words, she was going to consider Hercules’s silence as an indication that he was guilty of murdering Donna Brown. This is a quirk of civil law; although the Fifth Amendment would protect Hercules’s right against self-incrimination in a criminal proceeding, for the purpose of Inman’s appeal, such evidence was fair game.

The rest of the hearing focused on what Reilly, Inman’s lawyer, described as “two fundamental constitutional violations” that required Inman to be granted a new trial. First, there was the prosecution’s failure to turn over exculpatory evidence to Inman’s defense attorneys — what’s known as a Brady violation. Adel police reports showed that Hercules Brown had been arrested in September 2000 in connection with an attempted robbery at a local grocery store. Upon searching the car, police found a gun, crack cocaine, and 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,” Reilly told the judge. “But they concealed that.”

The second constitutional violation was the fact that Inman’s trial attorneys did a horrible job representing him. Although she was not Inman’s lead attorney at trial, Ryals had a critical job: investigating rumors that Hercules Brown was the real killer. 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 at the hearing, Ryals testified that 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.

Ryals’s failures were perhaps even more consequential after Inman’s trial. After his lead attorney left the case following Inman’s conviction, Ryals was charged with handling Inman’s direct appeal. As Inman’s pro bono attorneys discovered after going through her files, at some point Ryals did obtain at least one of the police reports about Hercules’s 2000 arrest for the attempted robbery. Yet “she did nothing with that information. She told no one about it,” Reilly told the judge. The documents would have been crucial to showing that the state withheld evidence that could have changed the outcome of Inman’s trial.

In fact, Reilly and his team found numerous pieces of critical exculpatory evidence in Ryals’s possession that she never used. This included handwritten notes from an interview after Inman’s trial with a man who said that Hercules had confessed to killing Donna Brown before Inman was arrested for the crime. This man was at least the third person whom Hercules had supposedly confessed to around the same time.

The hearing didn’t just reveal that Ryals failed to make use of such evidence as part of Inman’s appeal. After Inman repeatedly wrote to her from prison asking for the files in his case, to no avail, he filed a complaint with the Georgia State Bar. Asked to read from the complaint on the stand, Ryals became agitated. But she had no explanation for how she responded at the time. Asked if she ever provided the files to Inman, Ryals said, “Not to my recollection.”

Melinda Ryals, one of Devonia Inman’s attorneys at his 2001 trial, is pictured during a hearing in an unrelated case in Long County, Ga., in 2014.

Melinda Ryals, one of Devonia Inman’s attorneys at trial, is pictured during an unrelated hearing in Long County, Ga., in 2014.

Photo: Lewis Levine/AP

Fundamentally Unfair

In her ruling overturning Inman’s conviction, Graham was unsparing in her view of Ryals’s performance. She had “professional and ethical duties” that she did not meet, Graham wrote. “The record demonstrates to this court that Ms. Ryals’ unprofessional errors deprived Mr. Inman of his constitutionally guaranteed right to effective assistance of counsel and undermines the court’s confidence in the outcome of the proceedings.”

Regarding prosecutors’ failure to disclose the police reports, Graham echoed what Reilly argued at the hearing: that the state had “repeatedly represented” to Inman’s defense that it had turned over all exculpatory evidence — and that there was “absolutely no evidence linking Hercules Brown to Donna Brown’s murder.”

Ultimately, Graham concluded that if the jury had known about the evidence presented at the hearing, Inman would not have been convicted of killing Donna Brown. “This court is convinced that the trial and post-trial proceedings against Mr. Inman were fundamentally unfair,” Graham wrote.

What happens next is up to the Georgia Attorney General. The office has 30 days to appeal Graham’s ruling. But given the Georgia Supreme Court’s previous ruling in the case, it’s hard to see how the AG would prevail. Nahmias, who wrote the impassioned 2019 opinion in favor of Inman, is now the court’s chief judge. Back then he made clear that the attorney general’s office should back down. “Let justice be done,” he wrote.

If the AG does not appeal, Inman’s case will wind up back at his trial court in Cook County, where the elected prosecutor, a former public defender, will decide whether to retry Inman or dismiss the case. A dismissal would be the “best-case scenario,” said Jessica Cino, a fierce advocate of Inman’s who has been fighting to help exonerate him since 2014.

Cino was a dean and professor at the Georgia State University law school when she first learned about Inman’s case. It is largely through her efforts that Inman ended up being represented by the Troutman Pepper attorneys who won this appeal. “What would be fantastic would be to have a hearing where the state just dismisses the charges,” Cino said. But given what she’s seen from the attorney general’s office over the past seven years, it seems more likely they will fight back. “I would not be surprised if they appealed it. I would love for them to step back, have a little bit of objectivity and say, you know, let’s just do a press release and say we disagree with the court but we’re not going to appeal it anymore,” she said. But until now, Cino said, the AG’s office has committed itself to an “untenable and indefensible position.”

Regardless, no one seems to think this will all end up in a new trial. The evidence against Inman was never strong to begin with — and with DNA evidence pointing to Hercules Brown, it is hard to imagine a jury convicting Inman for the same murder today. For Inman’s mother, Dinah Ray, the judge’s ruling brings her one step closer to bringing her son home. “The tears are rolling down and my heart is pumping so fast right now,” she wrote in a text message shortly after hearing the news. “Devonia is almost home.” When we spoke to her a short while later, she was still in tears. “They keep coming. We got so much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.”