Devonia Inman’s exoneration was the culmination of decades of work, first by the Georgia Innocence Project, which secured DNA evidence pointing to another suspect, and then by former Georgia State University law professor Jessica Cino and pro bono attorneys with the Atlanta firm Troutman Pepper. After spending most of his adult life behind bars, Inman, now 43, faces a long road to realizing a future that was derailed by his wrongful conviction. His release also leaves open the question of whether anyone will be held accountable for the 1998 murder of Donna Brown.

 

Jordan Smith: Hey Murderville listeners. Man, have we got an update for you. It’s the one we’ve been hoping we’d have for years. Let’s get to it!

Speaker 1: Is that him in the car? 

Speaker 2: I think so. Yup

Speaker 1: Oh, let’s get out of the way.

Liliana Segura: So, let me describe what you’re hearing.

A red Escalade is pulling up on Highway 10, just across the street from Augusta State Medical Prison. There’s a crowd of people standing on the shoulder as cars and 18-wheelers zoom past. Devonia Inman is waving from the passenger seat of the Cadillac SUV.

He’s got a huge smile on his face. His 3-year-old granddaughter, Alana, is sitting on his lap. He’s just been released from prison and into the arms of his parents, Dinah and David Ray.

Dinah Ray: My heart was racing. But when I saw him then I knew it was real. So real, wow. I can’t believe this day. We’ve been waiting for this day for so long.

[Theme music.]

Liliana Segura: From The Intercept, I’m Liliana Segura.

Jordan Smith: And I’m Jordan Smith. Welcome back to Murderville, Georgia.

First, a quick recap. Devonia was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the 1998 murder of Donna Brown in Adel, Georgia. Brown was the night manager at the Taco Bell there and was shot in the parking lot as she left work after closing up for the night. No physical evidence linked Devonia to the crime. And years later, DNA found on a crucial piece of evidence linked another man, Hercules Brown, to her murder.

Hercules worked with Donna Brown at the Taco Bell, and he knew how the closing procedures worked. And while Devonia was in jail awaiting trial, Hercules was arrested and charged with the double murder of a beloved local shopkeeper and his employee. Hercules pleaded guilty to that crime and is now doing life without parole.

The last time we talked to you, back in August, we told you about the evidentiary hearing in Devonia’s case — where his lawyers argued that the state had withheld from his defense key evidence that pointed to Hercules — and that his trial attorneys did a lousy job.

On November 16, Judge Cristina Cook Graham released her decision: “Under the circumstances of this extraordinary case and having carefully considered the evidence presented, this Court is convinced that the trial and post-trial proceedings against Mr. Inman were fundamentally unfair and are unworthy of confidence in their outcome.” And with that, after 23 years, Graham overturned Devonia’s conviction.

Liliana Segura: We first got the news from Jessica Cino, the former law professor who has been Devonia’s fiercest advocate, and who first brought us the story of Devonia’s case. She sent a text message that ended with 10 exclamation points: “The court GRANTED Devonia’s motion for a new trial!!!!!!!!!!”

We also got a text message from Devonia’s mom, Dinah. When we called her, she was overcome with emotion.

Dinah Ray: We’ve got so much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. Ok, I’m sorry. I’m ready.

Liliana Segura: Take your time. Take your time, Dinah … it’s a lot. You’ve waited a long time for this.

Dinah Ray: A long time. It’s been 23 years, I’ve been waiting to hear something like this. And I thought would never happen. I don’t know if he knows yet, but I’m just waiting on him to call me, so.

Jordan Smith: Obviously, this was all great news. But there was a catch, or at least a potential one.

Liliana Segura: The Georgia attorney general would have 30 days to appeal Judge Graham’s ruling. And honestly, we were pretty convinced that they would.

For one, the state had fought tooth and nail to keep Devonia’s conviction intact and to keep him in prison for the rest of his life. Even after DNA came back pointing to Hercules. Why would they stop now? But also, in our experience, that’s just what prosecutors tend to do in cases like these. Even when their evidence has fallen apart.

Jordan Smith: So then, we just had to wait, and wait.

It wasn’t until the 11th hour that the AG’s office said it would not appeal Graham’s decision. Again, the news came in a text message from Cino on Thursday, December 16.

[Phone ringing.]

Liliana Segura: Hello.

Jordan Smith: Hello.

Liliana Segura: [Laughs.]

Jordan Smith: This is very exciting.

Liliana Segura: Oh my God. Should we just call Jess?

Jordan Smith: Yeah, yeah.

Liliana Segura: [Laughs.]

Jordan Smith: That is so awesome.

Liliana Segura: Yeah.

[Dialing.]

Jordan Smith: Hello.

Liliana Segura: Jess. 

Jess Cino: Hey. Merry Christmas. You know they had us in nail-biter mode but at last this guy is going to get some justice.

Jordan Smith: This meant the case would bounce back to Cook County, where Devonia was tried. And it would be left up to the district attorney, Chase Studstill, to make the call: Re-try Devonia for Donna Brown’s murder or cut him loose. Studstill was ready with his decision: He declined to prosecute and asked a judge for Devonia’s immediate release from prison.

Chase Studstill: I felt like the state didn’t need to keep pursuing something that we couldn’t win at trial beyond a reasonable doubt. I knew the AG’s office had their appellate rights for 30 days. They chose not to appeal the habeas, and once they did, it comes back to me to make a decision, and I had already been weighing in on this — just say this, last week when the window for appeals closed for the AG I wasn’t caught off guard scrambling to make a decision.

Liliana Segura: After that, things moved quickly but chaotically.

The order called for Devonia’s release within 24 hours. We’d gotten intel that it could happen much sooner. But we didn’t know exactly when — or even where — his release would take place.

Devonia was housed at a prison just outside Augusta, which is on the border of South Carolina. So there was a good chance he’d walk out from there. But there was also a chance he’d be taken down to Adel and released from the Cook County Jail, which is near the Florida border.

Dinah and her husband, David Ray, had come from California and were waiting for word in Adel. Meanwhile, Cino had packed a go-bag and was ready to leave Atlanta at a moment’s notice.

Finally, late on the morning of Monday, December 20, another text: Devonia would be released from Augusta between 3 and 4 p.m. By 2:30 that afternoon, people had started showing up at the prison. But it became immediately clear that the prison officials did not want Devonia’s release on display.

Liliana Segura: Hi, we’re just waiting for someone who is getting out shortly.

Speaker 3: Well, who are you?

Liliana Segura: Well, I’m press. There’s legal team members here.

Claire Reynolds: I’m also press.

Liliana Segura: She’s with me.

Speaker 3: You’re going to have to leave the premises.

Liliana Segura: Leave the premises?

Speaker 3: No press, no ma’am.

Liliana Segura: Well, I wasn’t going to take pictures or anything.

Speaker 3: No press on the premises. I’ve been informed no press on the premises at all.

Liliana Segura: I mean this is a story that we’ve been following a long time. It’s a man that is getting out after 23 years locked up for a crime he didn’t commit.

Speaker 3: [Crosstalk.] They don’t want any press on the premises, ma’am. This is state property. This is private property. You have to leave.

Liliana Segura: For the next couple of hours we waited by the side of the road. A bunch of family members were there, including cousins who had grown up with Devonia.

There was Andrekos Pickett.

Andrekos Pickett: We knew this day was coming. We just didn’t know it was going to take this long.

Liliana Segura: And Tamara Pickett.

Tamara Pickett: I was 11 when he left, yup. So I used to write him all these letters because, you know, we was close in my eyes when I was little.

Liliana Segura: Finally, Devonia pulled up.

[People cheering.]

Liliana Segura: There were hugs, and tears, and lots of discussion about what he wanted to eat. Devonia wanted wings and pizza.

Speaker 4: So what he said, wings first?

Speaker 5: Pizza and wings was his first choice.

[Laughter and crosstalk.]

Jordan Smith: Needless to say, this was all a really big deal. But there are a few more things we want to discuss with you.

Liliana Segura: First, let’s start by talking about the AG’s decision.

Jordan Smith: I completely expected them to appeal because that’s what they do. And this isn’t just in Georgia. This is pretty much everywhere where we’ve worked on wrongful conviction cases. Prosecutors — usually at this point it’s a state attorney general — get their back up against a wall with all of this cascade of how wrong this case is, and they just cannot let it go. And it just becomes really grotesque after a while.

And so in this situation, I was just expecting that that’s what they were going to do. But there’s one kind of little catch here, which was that ultimately they really had nowhere to go with it because the Georgia Supreme Court had this sort of extraordinary ruling in 2019 where the judge that was the presiding judge at the time — who is now the chief judge — was basically like “Back the hell off. Stand down. We got this case wrong. And you should stop this.” So for them to appeal, they would have had to appeal right back to the Georgia Supreme Court. And so it seemed like a non-starter. But that didn’t stop us from thinking, well, they’re totally going to do that, just to drag it out.

Liliana Segura: They had 30 days from when Judge Graham’s order came down, and I totally expected, maybe not immediately but within the first week. Jordan and I were checking the docket on this site called Peach Court, which is where the filings come in and all of these Georgia cases, and refreshing that docket — assuming that the AG would appeal. And then a week passed. And another week passed and there was nothing. And we started checking in with Tom Reilly, Devonia’s lawyer, to see if he had heard anything. And he kept saying, “Nope. Haven’t heard anything. Haven’t heard anything.”

And so the more time passed, the more I found myself cautiously optimistic. Like, oh my god, maybe they won’t appeal. But still we both expected that it was just a matter of time, and that maybe they were just waiting until the last minute to make that deadline.

Jordan Smith: But what they still did was drag it out as long as they could. So it’s just par for the course. Again, it’s just really important to keep in mind that this is just kind of how they roll. I think a lot of it, unfortunately, is politics. It’s not an interest in justice and a true belief that we got it right. It’s machinations inside the office that are purely political. In that way it’s obscene — routine but nonetheless obscene.

Liliana Segura: It’s important to keep in mind just how much it flies in the face of claims that these prosecutors are operating in the interest of justice but also in the interests of victims’ families because what this ultimately did was not only keep Devonia’s family in this incredibly destabilizing holding pattern, but it dragged it out for Donna Brown’s family. And I know we’ll talk about that more. But what this exoneration means for them is really hard to even wrap our heads around. In this case I really think the AG’s office, they saw the writing on the wall and still they chose to wait until the very last second and make everyone else sort of wait there during the holidays in a state of uncertainty.

Jordan Smith: Yeah, it’s cruel basically all around, right? It’s hard to describe it any other way.

This all obviously has ended well for Devonia and his family but I think — and we’ve said this before, actually — that Devonia is pretty fortunate that he even had lawyers. I mean all along the way he had lawyers. Now most people, especially when they’re doing a sentence that’s less than a death sentence, right — because that kicks in a whole new apparatus — but here he’s sentenced to life in prison. And that sort of stops his ability to have lawyers appointed to him.

So this took an extraordinary effort from people along the way. I mean he was the first to reach out to the Georgia Innocence Project. The fact that they took his case is huge, and then when they got stalled out, Jess Cino appears and gets really involved because she’s infuriated by the case. And then she recruits this very elite team of lawyers from a very prestigious law firm in Atlanta. And even then, look, this has taken 23 years. And most people don’t get that kind of opportunity.

So he’s fortunate and this has all ended up well for him. But even with all of these relative advantages, he was there for 23 years for something he didn’t do, right? I mean, that’s just crazy. But that is how the system works. So in a way Devonia is very much an exception to the rule. And we don’t know, we have no clue — and this is what should be mind-blowing and disturbing, I think — is we have no clue how many Devonias there are.

Liliana Segura: Devonia was incredibly lucky to have the legal team that he did because as we’ve said before, the system is not designed to enable processes like these. The system is designed to convict people and then keep people in prison. This very well could have gone very differently for Devonia depending on the jurisdiction where the hearing took place, the judge he got. The procedural rules that create barriers to relief and to exonerations are enormous in a very real way. The deck was stacked against Devonia and stacked against any number of people in his position. So many things had to go right for him to be released. It took so many people to get to this point.

[Music interlude.]

Jordan Smith: First of all, there were two key witnesses. There was Marquetta Thomas and LarRisha Chapman, who had initially implicated Devonia but said they had done so under coercive pressure from police. They tried to recant before Devonia was ever tried. I mean, think about that, and they went forward anyway, right? But meanwhile the other thing that’s happening is there are people who tried to tell law enforcement that they had heard that the real culprit was Hercules.

Liliana Segura: One of the key people that made this happen, who got Devonia back in court, was a woman named Kim Brooks, who we were unaware of but was found by Devonia’s legal team some years ago during a visit to Adel. And Kim Brooks had tried to tell police way back in the day that Hercules had tried to convince her to rob the Taco Bell, essentially to carry out this very kind of crime. And she tried to go to the Adel police and they told her, well, you need to GBI. But what Kim Brooks described — only to be ignored — was hugely significant. She said that Hercules had told her that he’d done something bad, and that he was aware that someone else was going to prison for what he’d done. So if not for her and that critical piece of evidence, it’s very likely Devonia wouldn’t have gotten back into court.

Jordan Smith: Now that Devonia is free, I guess a huge question that is out there is: What will the Cook County DA do? Have a bunch of evidence — DNA, and these other people like Kim Brooks, and there’s others out there too to whom he confessed that he had done it, like in detail. So the question becomes, Is the DA going to charge him?

And so we had a chance to actually talk to Chase Studstill. I mean, what did you make of what he said?

Liliana Segura: We were delighted to find that not only was he willing to talk to us on the phone — on the record — but he actually brought us inside his thought process in a way that we did not expect.

One of the exciting parts of that conversation was the fact that he told us that one of the first things he did to try and get up to speed on this case was listen to the podcast, which was pretty cool.

But it was very clear that he is a guy who took this case very seriously and wanted to be ready — as well he was — to make a decision here. But I will say that for all of his generosity during the conversation and openness he spoke very, very cautiously about what he planned to do when it came to Hercules Brown. And essentially said that he hasn’t really made a decision on that front.

Chase Studstill: The one thing I will say is with Mr. Brown, I would have more of a charge to make a case on him if he weren’t sitting where he is today. In other words, because he’s never getting out of prison, the necessity in trying to build a strong case against him isn’t as strong as if he were a free man.

Liliana Segura: He made clear that Hercules is already in prison. He’s going to be there for the rest of his life. And in a sense that makes the push — the imperative — to bring charges against Hercules in this case a little less urgent because it’s not like he’s out in the world.

Naturally for us the question was, well, that may be true for a lot of people, but if you’re Donna Brown’s family, I imagine it’s important to them. Of course we don’t know what Donna Brown’s family thinks about this case. We don’t know if they’re persuaded that Devonia was innocent or if they believe that Hercules might have been the real killer.

Jordan Smith: This naturally leads into a question about: What about Donna Brown’s family?

Liliana Segura: Have you been in touch with or have you heard from the family of Donna Brown? Whether about Inman himself or do you have a sense of whether they want to see Hercules Brown tried for this. Have you been in contact with them?

Chase Studstill: I don’t have a comment on that at this time.

Jordan Smith: I guess we don’t really know at this point if there will be any accountability for what happened to Donna Brown. But I would toss it to you, Liliana, because I think you describe best the response that we have gotten from the family in the past.

Liliana Segura: I wrote an email pretty early on. There was an email to a family member in 2016 essentially asking, “We’d love to talk to you. We want to know more about Donna Brown as a person.” All of the things you would ask a victim’s family member to do. And the email response was sad but quite definitive. This was a family member who said that you would think after all of this time that the death of my loved one would get easier, but it doesn’t get easier. And this family member specifically made clear that not only were they not interested in speaking to us, they really resented that their loved one was being made into a “project” — now her death is a project. That rings very real. That speaks to the trauma. And I can completely understand why that family member would feel that way. And so they basically said please don’t contact me again.

At the same time there were family members who did speak to other reporters and over the years we’ve actually heard from a number of people on that side of the case who were under the impression that we hadn’t sought out the family. And so I do regret that we didn’t make clear at least that of course we did. We would never neglect to do so.

After Devonia’s exoneration, I did write back to that one particular family member hoping that maybe they would feel differently or have something more to say because I think family members often feel like their loved one was forgotten in moments like this, and that their trauma … that somehow that doesn’t count. Thus far we haven’t gotten a response.

Jordan Smith: Now to the extent that Donna Brown’s murder is unsolved, there’s another unsolved murder in this podcast. You might remember that Shailesh Patel was in Adel running a convenience store for a family member who was out of town and staying at this family member’s house. And he’s working one night — this is after Donna Brown is killed but before Bennett and Browning are killed, who Hercules is in prison for murdering.

Patel is closing up the convenience store and goes home just a couple of blocks away, and then is truly brutally beaten to death in this house. And this crime has never been solved. We’ve inquired multiple times with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the GBI, about that. And they’ve been a little flip about it, insisting that it’s open but there’s no movement. But I would say the other thing that the DA in Cook County, Chase Studstill, told us that the podcast had kind of alerted him — I guess would be the best way to put it — that the Patel murder had never been solved. And he expressed to us deep desire to get to the bottom of that case, so.

Liliana Segura: Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up because, yeah, that was a really important part of our conversation too. Talk about forgotten. It was really important to represent the murder of Shailesh Patel in our podcast because in this period of time — when these murders took place — there was a lot of collective memory around not only the murder of Donna Brown and the wrongful conviction of Devonia Inman but also the Bennett and Browning murders that ultimately sent Hercules to prison. And yet this man, Shailesh Patel — who was an immigrant, who wasn’t from around there, who was only visiting Adel for a brief amount of time — died in this brutal death. And what we came to discover while investigating this story was that the GBI’s efforts, as far as we can tell, had been truly negligible. I mean the family had received no communication almost from the start and certainly not over the years.

And there’s just one piece of this that I will always remember, which is basically when we were done reporting this whole podcast at one point I received a message, a voicemail message, from a GBI agent who I tried to contact to see where their supposed efforts were to solve the murder of Shailesh Patel. And he called me back and left me a message in which it became really clear that he thought I was a member of the family inquiring about Shailesh Patel and that I might have some information for him.

GBI Agent: My name is Jason [inaudible]. I’m a special agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. I’m trying to make contact with a family member of a Shailesh Patel, Sam, Sam Patel that was involved in an ongoing death investigation out of Adel, Cook County, Georgia, many, many years ago.

Liliana Segura: That really spoke volumes about their supposed progress in investigating that cold case. So we’re really heartened to hear that the DA wants, as he put it, some closure in that case.

Jordan Smith: So I guess that brings you to the question of Devonia is out of prison now and that is great, right. But I suppose what we know all too well also is that that is an awesome first step, but it certainly doesn’t necessitate a happy ending, right? I mean, that’s probably not the greatest way to put it. I don’t know, how would you describe it, Liliana?

Liliana Segura: There are so many stories that both of us have written about people who have gotten out of prison, whether they were innocent or not, but who have struggled to rebuild their lives after decades behind bars. And that struggle is largely invisible to a lot of people who kind of love this happy ending. I mean, of course we’re all really excited that Devonia is free now. But he spent his entire adult life in prison. And now he has to find a way to get a job, figure out where he’s going to live, try to reestablish relationships with his loved ones — his family members, his son and his son’s daughter. All of that is incredibly, incredibly daunting. And he’s doing it without the benefit of any resources. One of the most egregious elements of these wrongful convictions is the fact that the states that are responsible for robbing people of their lives oftentimes don’t do anything to contribute to helping people rebuild their lives after all of this time. And that’s certainly true in Devonia’s case.

Jordan Smith: The road for him in many ways is just beginning.

Liliana Segura: One of the things about being there across from the prison that day there was something so emblematic about the scene there. You had Devonia’s loved ones — the people who are part of his community, who’ve waited all of this time — show up at the prison, many of them from hours and hundreds of miles away to welcome him home. And the first thing that prison officials did was say, “No you can’t be here. Press can’t be here.”

There were rumors that Devonia was going to be taken through the back of the prison where nobody could greet him or nobody could see. You know, the state doesn’t want this to be an event. They don’t want any level of transparency or publicity because they’re the ones who are responsible for this egregious injustice. So all of that speaks to the reason that they don’t then make any effort to actually help people rebuild their lives. So yeah, I think for a lot of people starting with an apology is a really good place to begin, and many people don’t even get that.

Jordan Smith: There are a number of states that do have compensation packages for the wrongfully convicted — people who are exonerated. This may surprise people but the best is Texas, where it’s up to, I think, $80,000 at this point for every year you’re wrongfully convicted, plus you get annuities, plus you get health care, educational benefits. Now Texas of course did not do this out of the kindness of its heart. It was basically embarrassed into this because of how many wrongful convictions there have been. But it is a model.

And there are states that have some model, but they’re kind of crappy, but they have something in name. Where I think Missouri is one of these. So it’s like you can only seek compensation from the state where you were exonerated because of DNA evidence, which people maybe don’t know is like the smallest percentage of exonerations total, writ large. And then after that the state is like, “OK, so only if you got exonerated because of DNA.” And then after that they’re like, “And also we don’t care how many years you were in prison — be it 10 or be it 40. You get $36,000 total.”

So it’s not just that having a compensation package means you’re automatically awesome, because it doesn’t, because there’s a range there. But then there are 13 states — and Georgia is one of them — that has zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero compensation for exonerees. Except for this bizarre sort of bullshit route you can take, which is: go to the legislature, find a lawmaker to write a specific bill for you to get your compensation. Let that sink in.

Think about that. You’ve just gotten out of prison. Now you have to go back to essentially the county where you were convicted, find a state rep there who would feel compelled to help you, then write a bill, and then push it through the legislature. I’m sorry, that’s just nonsense. And this is how they’ve done it every single time, every single time. And then you have lawmakers who are just like, “Well, I guess that guy’s life is worth 50 grand.” I mean, it’s just … obscene. And it is insulting. And the state has used its power to take your life away and then they act like they owe you nothing on the other side. And it just infuriates me. So this is where Devonia is. He spent 23 years behind bars in a state where at least halfway along the way they knew he didn’t have anything to do with this crime. And now he’s out, and they’re like, we don’t have to do anything for you.

Liliana Segura: So, for now, this story has basically come to a close: With Devonia Inman free and home with his family in California for Christmas for the first time in more than 23 years.

Jordan Smith: Why don’t we let David Ray, Devonia’s stepdad, take us out.

David Ray: It’s like a dream come true. Like they said, the nightmare is over with. My son is coming home. And I just want to say, I’m so happy. For everybody who had a part in it I just want to say thank you. Thank you very much.

[Musical interlude.]

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 Truc Nguyen, and mixed by Rick Kwan. Special thanks to Claire Reynolds for additional field recordings.

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, dropping February 1.

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Thanks, so much, for listening.