Devonia Inman has spent 20 years behind bars for a crime he swears he didn’t commit. There are good reasons to believe him. Welcome to Murderville.
Hercules Brown has been in prison for murder for more than 16 years, but he has not confessed to the September 1998 murder of Donna Brown at the Taco Bell in Adel, Georgia — even though there is strong evidence pointing to his guilt, and Devonia Inman, a man unconnected to the crime, is serving a life sentence in prison for it.
Jessica Cino, a dean and law professor at Georgia State University, has spent countless hours over more than three years trying to find a way to help Inman prove his innocence, a monumental feat that means battling a court system rigged to keep him behind bars. He’s exhausted his normal appeals and courts are loath to accept a new filing based only on a contention that someone is actually innocent. In order to raise the issue, Cino would need to find new evidence of a constitutional violation — one that hasn’t been included in any of his other appeals, and one to which she could bootstrap the innocence claim.
The pro bono legal team that Cino helped to assemble has been on the hunt for this new evidence, well-aware that with the passage of time, the odds of finding a fresh constitutional violation are slim. And then, last year, they found Kim Brooks.
Brooks took a job at the Taco Bell not long after Donna Brown was murdered — in fact, she took over Brown’s position. Hercules was still working at the Taco Bell, and his behavior toward Brooks was disturbing, she said. He would “play” like he was going to rob her and asked her if she wanted to help him pull off an “inside job” to rob the store. He told her that he would “rough her up” to make it look realistic, and they could split the take.
It was the same scenario that Inman’s cousin Takeisha Pickett, then a shift manager at the Taco Bell, had reported to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation not long after Brown’s murder. No one had paid attention.
Brooks also told the legal team that Hercules had all but confessed to her. He said he’d done something “bad.” When she asked if someone else was paying for his mistake, he replied, “It’s better their life than mine.”
And like Pickett, Brooks tried to report her troubling interactions with Hercules. She first tried to tell a local Adel cop, a sergeant who would escort her to the bank to make night deposits. But he brushed her off, eventually telling her that she’d have to talk to Jamy Steinberg, the GBI agent leading the Brown murder investigation. She tried, but he apparently wasn’t interested. He told her that Donna Brown’s murderer had already been found and that the case was closed.
This all happened before the end of 1998, Brooks told the lawyers, meaning that Inman hadn’t even been indicted yet, let alone tried. The information should have been recorded in the GBI report and it should have been turned over to Inman’s defense team. Neither happened — and that’s a constitutional violation that could get Inman back into court. “I do think that a ‘bombshell’ is the best way to describe it,” says Cino. “It’s yet another corroborating witness in this whole cesspool of facts that never got untangled or even looked at by the GBI.”
In January 2018, the lawyers filed a special appeal in state court seeking to overturn Inman’s conviction based on the new evidence. The appeal is pending. Despite its strength, it’s still a longshot. “A judge should read this and be outraged and give [Inman] an evidentiary hearing,” Cino says. “Politics and realities being what they may, I can’t at all say that I am even more than 50 percent confident that that’s the outcome.”
It was in mid-2015 that we received the first email from Cino. She was writing to see if we might be interested in looking into Inman’s case.
Cino did not represent Inman, but she was convinced that he was innocent, and had taken on his case as an advocate, she told us. She shared some red flags pointing to a wrongful conviction. There was no hard evidence connecting Inman to the murder, which had taken place around 2 a.m. on September 19, 1998. The victim, a single mother named Donna Brown, was the manager at Taco Bell; she was leaving the restaurant carrying the day’s receipts when she was apparently ambushed, shot dead with a .44 revolver. The gun was never recovered, nor was any of the cash or the bank bag that was stolen from her. And none of the fingerprints lifted from her car — which was stolen and dumped nearby — matched Inman.
Instead, there was a rogues’ gallery of witnesses who fingered Inman, an outsider from California who had only been in town a little more than a month before being accused of the crime. By the time he was tried in 2001, two of the prosecution’s key witnesses had recanted their statements to the GBI, insisting on the stand that they had lied. Ten years later, yet another witness — a man who was locked up briefly with Inman and claimed that he’d confessed details of his crime — also recanted, saying he’d been coerced by police.
But most significantly, in 2011, DNA testing revealed the genetic profile of another man, Hercules Brown, on the key piece of physical evidence found at the scene: a makeshift mask fashioned from a length of gray sweatpants with two eyeholes cut into it. Not only had Hercules gone on to commit a brutal double murder in the fall of 2001, but his name had also come up in rumors about a previous murder that same year — the killing of an Indian immigrant named Shailesh Patel — which remains unsolved. In sum, during the 17 months since the murder at Taco Bell, three more grisly slayings had taken place in Adel, a town of just more than 5,000 people. The DNA evidence was damning proof that law enforcement got the wrong man in 1998 — and by failing to treat Hercules as a suspect, they were indirectly responsible for further carnage in Adel. “I mean, it’s convenient, right?” Cino notes. “The minute, he gets locked up, people stop dying in this little town. That says a lot.”
Yet in 2014, the same judge who presided over Inman’s trial declined to grant him a new one, claiming that the DNA evidence was not persuasive enough. The Georgia Supreme Court subsequently declined to intervene. This left Inman in an impossible legal predicament. As Cino explained, “All the stars have to align for somebody to be able to challenge their conviction … to have lawyers who are going to work for them and to have a judge who’s receptive to those claims.” Inman had been given that shot but was still denied, even with DNA evidence, which only exists in a fraction of cases. The state of Georgia was “pretty crafty,” Cino said, in that “they left open this sliver for Hercules Brown to just creep into the picture and still leave Devonia in prison because they were able to at least create some inference that, well, we found Hercules’s DNA at the scene but that doesn’t mean Devonia wasn’t there too. … And it makes it now impossible or almost impossible for him to use that DNA to successfully challenge his conviction.”
As we began to review the materials in Inman’s case, we were horrified by what we found: a panoply of bad practices known to wreak havoc in the criminal justice system, all of which are regularly implicated in wrongful convictions. It started with an incomplete police investigation. Law enforcement latched onto an early narrative about the crime and then consequently ignored all signs — even screaming ones — that conflicted with their chosen theory. Such tunnel vision and confirmation bias are common in cases of innocent people sent to prison. In Inman’s case, agents with the GBI failed to follow several substantial leads, including rumors that Hercules was the real man responsible for Brown’s murder.
We first went down to Cook County in November 2015, meeting Cino in Atlanta and making our way south down I-75. Cotton fields were ripe for harvest along the interstate; at Exit 39, the main entrance to Adel, a sign advertised the King Frog, an old Adel institution that once billed itself as the “Flea Market of the South,” but now mainly sells discount clothing in the shadow of a newly arrived Walmart. Although Thanksgiving was more than a week away, Christmas decorations adorned the storefronts in sleepy downtown Adel, surrounded by magnolias and palm trees.
The Taco Bell where Donna Brown was shot sits just off the interstate, across from a truck stop and surrounded by a handful of fast-food joints. We retraced the steps Brown would have taken as she carried the cash to her car, examined the area where her assailant was allegedly lying in the weeds, then drove the short route taken by her killer, turning east across the overpass covering I-75 and making a right towards the still-abandoned Pizza Hut lot several blocks away.
Around the corner from the Pizza Hut was the awning where Virginia Tatem — the newspaper delivery woman who was a key eyewitness against Inman — once stood. The shelter used to house gas pumps but is now just an empty shell facing out toward the street on the corner of 4th Avenue and Adams Street. Around 2 a.m. on the night of the murder, Tatem said she was standing under the awning waiting for the nightly delivery of the Valdosta Daily Times when she heard what sounded like a gunshot coming from the other side of the highway. She then claimed to see two cars following each other, going so fast that they fishtailed when turning the corner. Despite their high speed, she said she saw clearly into each car. In the first, a black car that matched the description of Brown’s Chevrolet Monte Carlo, she saw a lone black man she would later identify as Inman. In the second, a rusty-brown-colored car, she saw four or five other black people. The cars continued down the road before coming to a stop at the boarded-up Pizza Hut and disappearing from view.
Looking out onto the street from the spot where Tatem said she stood, her claims seemed absurd. The sound she allegedly heard from the Taco Bell to the west would have had to cut through the noise from multiple lanes of traffic, both from the overpass, as well as the sound from I-75 below. The voices she supposedly heard from the Pizza Hut would have been similarly hard to hear, unless the subjects were loud, which would seem unlikely from anyone who just committed a robbery and murder. What she claimed to have seen seemed just as unlikely. She described the first driver as wearing a ribbed white tank top and dark slacks, along with a thin gold chain. But looking down toward the Pizza Hut from the awning — in broad daylight — it was hard to make out much of anything.
There was good reason to be skeptical of Tatem from the start. It had taken her more than a month after Brown’s murder to come forward with this account — and only after news of a $5,000 reward for information related to the Taco Bell murder was published in the Adel News Tribune. In two subsequent interviews and then on the witness stand at Inman’s trial, Tatem offered additional details she hadn’t previously disclosed to police — embellishments that should have been a cause for concern. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable — a leading factor in wrongful convictions — and an account that gets more detailed with the passage of time is even more suspect. Yet both police and prosecutors ignored this fact, accepting Tatem’s dramatic tale at face value.
As we explored the area between the awning and the Pizza Hut, Cino theorized that prosecutors felt that they needed Tatem to move forward with the case. Inman did not get indicted until January 1999, she pointed out. “So that means they didn’t think they had enough until they got Virginia Tatem’s last statement.” Prior to that point, “none of the forensics matched up. They don’t get any really credible witness statements.” Then “suddenly Virginia Tatum comes in and they get more until they’ve got, basically a perfect statement from her” — a description that matched their theory of the crime.
Particularly disturbing is that GBI agent Jamy Steinberg seems to have completely missed an early sign suggesting that Tatem’s story might be fabricated. On October 26, 1998, the same afternoon he first talked to Tatem, Steinberg called a man named Lee Grimes, a fellow newspaper carrier who was reportedly waiting with Tatem on the night of the murder. According to the GBI report, Grimes said he didn’t remember anything about that night. More importantly, he told Steinberg that Tatem had actually called him to talk about what she was now claiming to have seen. If this was a hint that Tatem may have been trying to gin up her story before offering it to the police, there’s is no indication that Steinberg — or anyone else — ever considered it.
Grimes was called to testify for the defense at Inman’s trial, but the examination was lackluster. He repeatedly said he didn’t remember anything about that night, including after an odd exchange: Lead prosecutor Bob Ellis recounted how, according to Tatem, Grimes had allegedly joked with her about not walking into the street to get a good look at who was driving down by the Pizza Hut because she might get shot. Grimes said he didn’t remember that “at all.”
Could it be that something did happen, and Grimes just didn’t remember it? We went to see Grimes to find out.
We located Grimes in a quiet town nearly two hours northeast of Adel, in a house that is a shrine to his first love: music. A former school band director, Grimes’s house is a maze of record albums — more than 20,000 of them, alphabetized on seemingly endless rows of shelving. Beatles paraphernalia is displayed throughout the house, and a collection of album covers stretches back into the laundry room.
Grimes explained that in the fall of 1998, he was on hiatus from teaching, living in Adel and delivering papers. He remembers the night of Donna Brown’s murder as well as the day he testified in Inman’s trial. And he has a singular regret: that he wasn’t more forceful when answering questions about what Tatem said she’d seen. “None of that happened, and I’ll swear on 10 stacks of Bibles … none of what she said, absolutely, positively, did not happen at all,” he said.
Grimes traced Tatem’s story to a conversation he had with her on a totally different night following the murder, after the notice of the reward had run in the paper. The two were waiting for the newspapers to be delivered when a car carrying some black people passed by. They began talking about the murder at Taco Bell. “She was telling me, ‘You know, there’s a $5,000 reward for that. It sure would be nice to get that reward.” She then made a pointed comment: “‘You know, those people right there, they could have committed that crime,’” Grimes recalls her saying. “I just thought, well, she’s looking for money.” He said he had no idea that Tatem had gotten involved in the case until sometime later, when he was contacted by Inman’s attorney. Tatem’s story, he said, was “just totally made up.”
Grimes was not sure whether Tatem ever collected the money, but he was willing to bet she had. A few years later, Tatem wrote a lengthy war novel, titled “Tripwire,” which she self-published in 2008. It centered on two women in Adel whose husbands had gone to fight in Vietnam. Grimes said there was some speculation that she had used the reward money for that — “which would be something frivolous she would do.”
Grimes last saw Tatem at a bank, several years after the trial. He decided to confront her. “I walked up to her and I asked her, ‘How are you sleeping at night?’ And she just walked away.”
Several people have tried to speak to Tatem about the Donna Brown murder over the years. She has not welcomed the attention. Aimee Maxwell, the founder and former executive director of the Georgia Innocence Project, told us that the first time she showed up at Tatem’s door, her husband ran Maxwell off with a rifle. In Cino’s experience, phone calls to the house would be picked up by a woman claiming to be Tatem’s “friend,” but who Cino and her colleagues suspected was Tatem herself.
We went to see Tatem during a subsequent visit to Cook County, stopping by her home in Hahira, a rural town just south of Adel. She was not expecting the visit. Upon answering the door, she cracked it open just a sliver, allowing for the briefest of exchanges. We said we were looking for people willing to discuss the murder of Donna Brown. “Good luck with that,” she answered. She denied that she’d been an important part of the case — “I don’t think I was key,” she said. “I was a witness. That was it.” More surprising, despite her presence at the evidentiary hearing in 2014 — which had been held to consider the DNA evidence found on the ski mask matching Hercules Brown — Tatem repeatedly claimed that she had not heard anything about any DNA evidence. “I don’t even know anything about it,” she said, adding that anything more she had to say about the case she had already said in court. “That was it and basically I don’t have any other kind of comment,” she said. “And please don’t come back.”
Despite Tatem’s insistence that she had nothing more to say, she later agreed to speak to Bill Rankin of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In an interview outside her home, with her grandchildren playing nearby, she cried over the fact that people kept questioning her claims and motives when it came to what she saw. She also confirmed that she had collected the reward money, just six months after the trial ended. But as she did on the stand, she adamantly denied that she had been motivated by greed. “I’m a mother of five children,” she said. “I don’t take something like that as a joke.” She told Rankin that she felt something in common with Brown, who was a mother working a dangerous night shift. There were plenty of times she felt she was in danger herself, she said. “It could have been me.”
Tatem’s wasn’t the only door that closed in our faces as we tried to look into the Donna Brown murder. Several key players refused to talk at all, chief among them the lead investigators. GBI agent Steinberg, a rookie with the department at the time, was laconic: The case has “been adjudicated,” he said over the phone. “You can ask, but I’m not going to discuss it with you.” This was far more than we got from then-Adel Police detective Jimmy Hill, leaving the extent of his involvement in the investigation uncertain.
Over repeated visits to Adel, it became clear that while Steinberg officially led the investigation into Brown’s murder, Hill played a key role in the case. Defense investigator Earline Goodman named him as one of the only people who could really explain why the investigation went as it did. And according to Christy Lima, Inman’s girlfriend at the time of the murder, it was Hill and the Adel police who were hounding her sister Marquetta Thomas, who implicated Inman in the crime in the days and weeks after Brown’s slaying. “They kept interrogating her,” Lima said. “They picked her up every day.”
Hill’s name appears all over the GBI’s official report, yet none of the documents are actually written by him. This is not entirely surprising: None of the officers who first responded to the call about a body in the Taco Bell parking lot recorded their initial contacts with witnesses or their observations of the scene. This basic information is simply absent from the GBI report. In fact, there are no reports from the Adel Police Department at all. At Inman’s trial, Adel Police Chief Kirk Gordon explained that his officers didn’t write reports because “we’re not going to interfere” with the GBI. Even when an Adel officer was the first to receive or develop some bit of information, he said. “What’s the use in writing it down when you can explain it to [the GBI] face to face?”
This lackadaisical approach raises serious questions, not only about what leads were communicated by local officers to the GBI in the Donna Brown case, but also about who might have exerted influence on various players — like Thomas — or on the direction of the investigation — like the decision to focus on Inman and not Hercules. Of particular concern is whether Hill held sway over such decisions. Goodman believes that is exactly what happened: “I think he’s the one that put the case together,” she said.
Inman’s relatives are certain that it was Hill who targeted Inman. They say he mouthed off to Hill and a couple of Adel police officers during his last arrest. According to his uncle, Ben Pickett, Hill said about Inman, “He ain’t getting out of here. He won’t never see the daylight of dawn around here, in this jail.” Dinah Ray, Inman’s mother recalls speaking to Inman in jail. “He told me that he had smart-mouthed a police officer,” she said. “I strongly believe this is the reason [he was targeted]. Him disrespecting authority. Does that equal to life in prison?”
Hill, a portly, bald sexagenarian with a smile that is half glower, is a polarizing figure in Cook County. Depending on who you ask, he’s either a crack investigator with a spotless record of arresting the right person, or an aggressive and vindictive man who used whatever means necessary to clear his caseload. There seems to be no in between when it comes to Hill; a number of people we spoke to for this story refused to say anything about him on the record, but had strong opinions to share once the interview was over.
Several of his law enforcement colleagues described Hill as exceptionally talented. “Jim Hill was always a very aggressive detective. I mean, he was like your true detective. If he had the evidence you were going to get arrested. I mean, that’s all there was to it,” Tim Eidson, the former assistant district attorney, recalled. “And I will tell you, if Jim Hill ever made an arrest, I had no doubt that he had the goods.”
To Gordon he was very smart, but “a little bit loose-tongued, rough around the edges, I should say.” And former DA Bob Ellis said the investigator had a “strong personality” that some people found intimidating — though he said he never did.
But others saw Hill as a racist bully. Ben Pickett said he was “always pinning stuff on young black men.” Takeisha Pickett, Inman’s cousin, agreed, saying that she’d always heard that he was a bad cop who liked to get black people off the street whenever possible. They’re not alone in their negative assessments. Former Cook County Sheriff John Daughtrey did not mince words: “He’s a vicious little man,” he said. “He’s threatening something all the time.” And he agrees that the city’s black residents have an especially hostile view towards the man that they believe is “out to get them specifically.”
Hill, says Daughtrey, is “the most hated guy in Cook County, there’s no doubt about it.”
We got in touch with Hill in the spring of 2017, after a number of failed attempts to reach him that included trying to track him down at home, leaving phone messages with a close friend, and camping out in the lobby of the Cook County Sheriff’s Office where he now works; we left a series of notes with the receptionist. When we finally reached him by phone, he was decidedly surly. “Isn’t it a clue when I don’t return your call I don’t intend to talk with you?” he asked. He hung up before we could ask any real questions.
As we pursued our investigation, it seemed that everyone who might actually be in a position of power to correct the mistakes made in Inman’s case — from police to prosecutors to judges — had abdicated their duty to see that justice is served. Yet, others wished desperately that they could do more to help. Where Grimes regrets that he was not more forceful in pushing back against Tatem’s apocryphal story about what she saw the night of the Taco Bell murder, Marquetta Thomas harbors deep regret about the role she played sending Inman to prison.
We met Thomas in July 2016, in Baldwin, a small town two hours northeast of Atlanta, and roughly half the size of Adel. Her two-story, white clapboard house sits on the edge of the Chattahoochee National Forest, which spills down from Tennessee. “I never heard of this town in my life,” she said, but she had settled there after being released from Lee Arrendale State Prison, just five minutes away. Wearing glasses, a red sweater vest, a bowtie, and a short-sleeved shirt that showed off an old tattoo, she reflected on her role in the case — and how much she wishes she could take it back.
Thomas was the first to insist that Inman was responsible for Donna Brown’s murder. Her motivation was twofold: She hated the way he treated her sister, Christy Lima, she said, while she also felt hounded by investigators in the days and weeks after the murder. She still doesn’t understand why the cops came to her in the first place. “It’s just like they picked me out [at] random,” she said.
Whereas her sister told investigators from the start that Inman was with her that evening — and has never changed her tune — Thomas said she was coerced into implicating Inman. “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,” she said. “It was verbal coercion because they would say, ‘Wasn’t this this?’ and I just agreed. I guess the story started getting formulated with bits and pieces they were telling me, and I just fused the story together to get [them] out of the picture.”
Thomas arguably had a further incentive to advance a narrative in which Inman alone committed the crime. There were rumors that Thomas might have played a role to herself in the crime at Taco Bell, something the state tacitly acknowledged over the course of Inman’s trial, albeit not in front of the jury. She even fit the description of the woman in the second car that Virginia Tatem allegedly saw that night. Although Thomas denies having had any role — she told us she did not know Hercules Brown — by the time the state called Thomas to testify in June 2001, she was facing bigger problems of her own, having been arrested for acting as a getaway driver in another unrelated armed robbery. Thomas was ultimately convicted and sent to prison, spending 14 years locked up for her role in that crime.
It was a life-altering blow. Thomas had four young kids when she went to prison, whose childhoods she missed completely. She described facing beatings and rape — but she was also able to turn her life around, enrolling in vocational training and getting involved with a traveling choir, in which she was able to sing and share stories of redemption at area churches. When she was released, the church helped her get back on her feet. Today she is 41; when we met, she had a good job and dedicated much of her time to the ministry as a worship leader, youth minister, and minister of music in the congregation — and was deeply involved in church outreach.
Thomas says she thinks about Inman’s case and her role in it almost every day — “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” — and particularly when her son calls home. Now in his 20s, her son is serving 80 years in prison for participating in an armed robbery that ended in murder. “I’m thinking, ‘This is my karma or my reap-what-you-sow,’ because I allowed another young man’s life to be gone for a murder and robbery that he did not commit,” she said.
But ultimately, Thomas blames the police for everything that went sideways for Inman. “I think it’s them, Adel all day long — Adel city police and the GBI.”
Dinah Ray no longer feels safe in her hometown. After her son was convicted, she wrote letters to anyone she could think of who might be able to help but came to fear that the letters might make her a target. Once during a visit to Adel, the heater in the hotel room caught fire. “Me and my wife, we thought they was trying to kill us,” her husband, David, says. “I get a little paranoid when I go there,” Dinah admits. She is afraid of the police and authorities in Adel. “I don’t know what they may do.”
Growing up, she had been aware of the racial divisions in Adel — a ditch near her mother’s house separated the black side of town from the white side. “We would cross that ditch to go to the store sometimes,” she said, and an elderly white couple would let their dog loose after her and her siblings. Still, Dinah had felt it was a good place to live. But not anymore. “After that trial, it changed my whole perspective on Adel,” Dinah says. “I told my sisters, ‘Adel is no place for a black man. You need to take your boys away from here.’”
Dinah and David still live in Sacramento, in a white house with a basketball hoop over the garage. On a weeknight in September 2016, they shared old photographs of Inman growing up. There is a photograph of his sister reading to him as a toddler, a shot of teenage Devonia wearing denim from head to toe, standing next to a Christmas tree. In another, he is dressed in a white suit and sunglasses. Even when he was a little boy, he had loved to dress up, often in military garb, mimicking his biological father. “He loved to look nice,” Dinah says.
Photo: Ryan Christopher Jones for The Intercept
It was hard for Dinah to leave Inman in Adel. “He didn’t want to stay, and my wife didn’t want to leave him,” David says. “She cried the whole ride back.” Dinah calls it “the worst thing I could have ever done. It destroyed our lives.” The family attended the trial but was not allowed in the courtroom for most of the proceedings. “Even with the little information that we heard during the trial, I still thought my son was coming home,” David says. “To me, the evidence that they had, they didn’t have nothing.”
After the verdict came down, they remember a young woman who was a witness for the state had approached Dinah. They later identified her as LarRisha Chapman, who first claimed to see Inman in the weeds but later recanted in a letter and on the stand. “She was crying, and she said that she was sorry, that she didn’t even know my son,” Dinah says, “that they were just harassing her, and they made her say it.”
Inman writes frequent letters to his family; Dinah was going to find some letters to share when Inman’s cousin, Takeisha Pickett, arrived at the house. Pickett, who previously lived in Adel and worked at the Taco Bell prior to the murder, could have been a crucial source of information, had investigators taken her seriously. On multiple occasions, she tried to provide a critical tip: In the months leading to the crime, Hercules Brown had asked her if she would help him rob the Taco Bell. “He said it to me maybe twice and I brushed him off on it,” she said. “Then a month or two later, this happens.”
In high school, Pickett knew Hercules as a football player from a well-to-do family. “When I started working at Taco Bell, I was introduced to a different Hercules,” she said, a guy who had gotten into drugs. Regardless, the two got along, she says. As a shift supervisor, she would sometimes close the restaurant with him. “He gave me a ride home one night and we came in for a little while,” she said. That’s when he said, “‘Man, you should let me rob you one night,’ or whatever.” Pickett scoffed — there wasn’t enough money at the Taco Bell to make it worth robbing, she said. “He just left it alone for a little while. Then maybe a couple of weeks later, he brought it up again. Then I think we might have been at work. He was like, ‘Man, you should let me do it, Keesh.’ I was like, ‘Man, you trippin.’ That was that.”
By the time she heard about the murder, Pickett had left her job to work at Lowe’s. When Steinberg came seeking information about Inman, she says, “I was like, ‘Hercules Brown wanted to rob the Taco Bell.’” In response, she remembers him saying, “That’s not relevant to what we’re talking about.” She never heard anything further until she was subpoenaed for trial.
In a two-page summary included in the GBI report, Steinberg makes no mention of this part of his interview with Pickett. Indeed, despite the constant chatter among members of the community that Hercules was involved, there are virtually no indications that Steinberg looked into the rumors. Later, Pickett says, when she went to court to testify at trial, she met in a small room with Jimmy Hill and Bob Ellis, repeating to them what she had told Steinberg. But she was dismissed.
By then, Hercules already sat in a jail cell for the brutal killing of William Bennett and Rebecca Browning months before. Bennett’s death still saddens Pickett — she knew his daughter from school, she said, and “I loved him because he made the best chili dogs ever.” Like so many others in Adel, Pickett is certain that their deaths could have been prevented if Hercules had ever been considered as a suspect for the murder at Taco Bell.
David suggested that the murder of Shailesh Patel might have been avoided too. “To this day, I think if they would have listened to us, the other three people that got killed later … they would be still alive,” he says, “and then my son would be home with us.”
For all the lingering trauma over the bloody chapter in Adel, among the members of the Patel family, the death of their loved one has gone largely unspoken for years.
Today Manishh Patel has no recollection of speaking to the Adel News Tribune about his uncle’s death in 2001. At the time he was a college student in Atlanta, majoring in business. He now manages a cheap motel in Macon, Georgia, where we met last summer, along with his uncle, Haribai. Like several members of the family’s older generation, who began arriving in the U.S. in the late 1970s, Haribai does not speak fluent English, relying on Manishh to translate. Shailesh Patel was his younger brother, Haribai explained through his nephew. After he was killed, “I couldn’t think for three months.”
Manishh explained that his uncle’s murder was only the first in a series of horrible tragedies that gripped the family in 2000. After his death, Shailesh had been cremated and the family had gone to Savannah to spread his ashes in the ocean. On the way home, the family got into a car accident, which killed Shailesh’s young daughter. Soon after that, Shailesh’s mother died. The family was in a constant state of shock and mourning. Haribai “was nervous all the time. Just scared all the time,” Manishh says. “It was just a bad time for our family.”
If the Patels were too emotionally burdened to keep tabs on the investigation into Shailesh’s death, the authorities were not providing any information. On the profile of the unsolved murder, the GBI website puts two names as the officers in charge: GBI agent Mike Clayton, who also participated in the Donna Brown investigation, and Adel Police detective Jimmy Hill. The names don’t ring a bell within the Patel family. Nobody from law enforcement ever called them, Manishh explained. Instead they got word that something bad had happened from another Indian acquaintance in Adel, who called them the day after the murder. Manishh’s father went to the scene but was turned away. The first time an agent came to talk to them it was days later, at a motel the family owned in Locust Grove.
It is hard to piece together who spoke to the GBI and when. Harabai “was there, but he didn’t talk to anybody,” Manishh explained. “It was always some relative or a cousin or somebody that did all the talking and then told him what they said.” He estimated that the GBI agent stayed for 20 to 30 minutes, asking basic questions. “And then that was the last what they heard from him.”
At one point during our interview, as he translated for Haribai, Manishh was told something he had never heard, a revelation that stunned and confused him. According to his uncle, “the GBI came up there and said, ‘If y’all want to proceed on this case, y’all have to help us pay for the investigation, at least 30 to 40 percent of it.’” The claim sounded bizarre: Families of victims are certainly not expected to cover the cost of a state investigation. It is unclear whether there was a miscommunication or even who had the conversation in question with the GBI. (Mark Pro, the GBI agent who insists that the investigation into the case is ongoing, called the claim “ridiculous.”) Regardless, the Patels have remained under the impression for years that the murder of their loved one had gone unsolved because they could not afford to pay for it.
“We never had any kind of crime like this in our family even before or after,” Manishh explained. The older generation in the immigrant family were outsiders to the criminal justice system in the United States. They did not feel empowered to push or question the GBI. And the language barrier made things that much harder. When a news station put together a public service announcement asking for tips to solve the murder, the job fell to Manishh’s cousin, who was similarly young at the time.
“I remember the cousins used to talk about it like, ‘What’s going on?’ Like, ‘What happened?’” Manishh recalls. But they did not want to upset their parents by bringing it up. “Even just bringing this up right now is even hard for them,” he said. “Because they kind of sealed it away a little bit, you know? … They’d rather be free, not have to think about this no more.”
Still, Manishh wishes that he could know what happened. “What kind of investigation they did. … Was it a forced entry or not? What was the story?” He wonders if the killer targeted Shailesh or meant to go after his brother-in-law, Vishnu, who was the one living at the house on Gordon Avenue, where Shailesh was killed, the one who brought Shailesh to Adel in the first place. “What happened?” Mannish asks. “Even if it was Hercules Brown, what was he thinking?”
It has been more than seven years since the DNA results from the mask came back with a match to Hercules. Inman’s parents remember exactly where they were when they got the phone call from the Georgia Innocence Project. “All we could do was cry,” says Dinah Ray. “We thought, this is it. He’s going to be coming home soon. But that didn’t happen.”
David Ray becomes emotional as he describes their attempts for help. His wife wrote to everybody she could think of — even the president, he says. “We still can’t believe this. This is supposed to be the justice system? My son been wrongly accused,” he said. “Something is wrong with this system. It needs to be checked again.”
When a brutal murder rocks a small Southern town, residents and police are shocked. Could the new guy in town be the one who who did it? Yes, the cops say, he is. Case solved. But then another murder happens. And another. In the end: four bodies, two convictions, and one man in jail for a crime he likely did not commit. Welcome to Murderville, Georgia.
New evidence points to an old suspect in the murder of Donna Brown. Can Devonia Inman prove his innocence? Welcome to Murderville.
In the fall of 2001, lawmakers in Cook County, Georgia voted to raise taxes for the coming year. The $1.75 million hike passed “unanimously but reluctantly,” according to the Adel News Tribune, which cited large expenditures in the name of law and order. There was the opening of the new county jail, requiring new staff and equipment, but, more significantly, the previous spring Adel had seen its first death penalty trial in a generation. The weeklong trial of 20-year-old Devonia Inman for the killing of a single mother named Donna Brown “quadrupled the Superior Court budget,” according to the newspaper. The sequestered jurors were housed in a motel, fed three meals a day, and escorted by police at all times. Now, close on the heels of Inman’s conviction, the county faced the prospect of yet another capital trial.
Kirk Gordon was Adel’s police chief at the time. “You’re not going to find many smaller counties that’s going after the death penalty if they can get by with life,” he says. “The cost of a big trial can bankrupt a county.” But 2001 was no ordinary year in Adel. A string of murders had recently gripped the small rural town, stirring fear, anxiety, and collective cries for justice. The first was the murder of Donna Brown, who was shot in a Taco Bell parking lot in September 1998, for which Inman stood trial. The second, in April 2000, was the brutal killing of an Indian immigrant named Shailesh Patel, a crime that remains unsolved — and largely forgotten in Adel today. The third was a brazen double murder committed in broad daylight in the fall of 2000. In that case, a man named Hercules Brown had been arrested for killing two beloved members of the community — William Carroll Bennett and his employee, Rebecca Browning — at a popular grocery store and lunch spot, Bennett’s Cash and Carry. As Inman’s trial came to a close — ultimately ending in a life sentence — Hercules was facing his own capital trial.
Prosecutors had every reason to feel confident that they could win a death sentence this time. The state had come close to sending Inman to death row, despite its relatively weak case — in their first vote during deliberations, nearly half the jurors favored the death penalty. By comparison, the evidence against Hercules was airtight. What’s more, the Bennett family wanted the death penalty — and Bennett’s older brother, Buck, was one of the county commissioners who voted to make sure there was money in the budget.
Yet it would never come to pass. Shortly before his trial was set to begin in 2002, Hercules cut a plea deal with prosecutors. In exchange for a life sentence, he would divulge a piece of evidence that had eluded the Georgia Bureau of Investigation: the identity of his accomplice, whom Hercules had long refused to name. The man, 23-year-old Wesley Mason, had remained on the streets for more than a year, much to the anger and dismay of Adel’s residents. In one of several outraged columns, News Tribune editor-in-chief Ann Knight chided the GBI for leaving the town vulnerable to a killer on the loose, calling on Adel residents to make their voices heard. “Do you want the next crime victim to be you or your father, your grandfather, maybe your wife?”
After giving up Mason, Hercules swiftly went from protecting his co-defendant to pinning everything on him. It had been Mason’s idea to rob the store, Hercules said, and it was Mason who attacked both Bennett and Browning with a baseball bat. Although Hercules admitted that he grabbed the store’s cash register — throwing it at two eyewitnesses immediately following the crime — he implied that this, too, had been Mason’s idea. But Mason, who had initially denied being there at all, told GBI agent Jamy Steinberg the opposite: It was Hercules who committed the murders, beating both Bennett and Browning to death, completely out of the blue.
There is no indication in the available records that anyone sought to determine who actually committed the grisly crime. The lack of clarity still distresses Bennett’s widow, Gail, who left Adel following her husband’s death. “Which one did what, I have no idea,” she says about Mason and Hercules. “It frustrates you, because you don’t know. You don’t.”
With Hercules headed to prison for life in May 2002, it was Mason who now faced a possible death sentence. It would be up to his appointed defense attorneys to prove that Mason was the less culpable party, that only Hercules was capable of such heinous acts. This would mean finding out whatever they could about Hercules’s history of violence, a search that would soon raise new questions about other murders in Adel.
Defense attorney Josh Moore works in a large office building in the heart of Atlanta that is home to the State Bar of Georgia. On a weekday in 2017, he sat at his desk, surrounded by case files, a drawing by his young son hanging on the wall. As the appellate director of the Office of the Georgia Capital Defender, Moore has spent more than 15 years trying to save his clients from death row — including Wesley Mason, back in 2003. As Moore recalls, Mason insisted that although he was present when Bennett and Browning were murdered, he had no idea that Hercules would go on a killing spree and he did not participate in the violence. “So the question was, how much of it was Wesley Mason and how much of it was Hercules Brown?” Moore recalls. The answer would be key to keeping his client off death row.
“I quickly recognized that a deeper understanding of Hercules Brown was critical to our defense,” Moore says. He drove the three hours south to Adel on I-75. Almost immediately he began to hear stories about how Hercules was the person responsible for the murder of Donna Brown at the Taco Bell in 1998 — and that the wrong man had gone to prison for life. The rumors were “rampant,” Moore recalls, but he could not get anyone to go on the record. “Everybody was saying that this is what happened. And everyone was saying, as is typical in a place like Adel, they didn’t want to talk about it.”
Indeed, while Mason had no violent criminal history, Hercules’s recent past was checkered with violent incidents. In June 1999, he was accused of attacking a woman — the mother of a drug dealer — by pulling her out of a car and kicking her in the head. “It looked like she had been in a fight with Mike Tyson,” former Adel police Officer Tim Balch recalled. But the case was never prosecuted because the woman declined to cooperate. In July 2000, Hercules was accused of knocking a man on a bicycle to the ground and wailing on him until witnesses restrained him. The man was hospitalized for three days. Hercules was sentenced to 12 months of probation.
And just weeks before the murders of Bennett and Browning, in September 2000 Hercules was arrested again — for an attempted robbery at another grocery store less than a mile from Bennett’s. Balch had received word from a confidential informant that the robbery was about to go down; he made a beeline to the market and spotted Hercules driving his blue Cadillac. After pulling him over and searching the car, Balch found crack cocaine, a 40-caliber pistol, and in the trunk, a black cloth cap with two eyeholes cut into it — a makeshift mask not unlike the one that had been found in Donna Brown’s car in 1998.
But as he had in the past, Hercules was able to escape consequence thanks to one person: his mother, Lucinda Brown. When Balch arrived with him at the police station, Lucinda was already there. She began “cussing me out about how her son would never have done any of this,” he recalled. Balch is not easily intimidated. But he held his tongue. Lucinda was well-known among local cops and prosecutors — and well-respected among Adel’s mostly white leadership. As a top employee at the Division of Family and Children Services, officers like Balch relied on Lucinda to help them solve child abuse cases. She was not shy about intervening when her son got in trouble. The dynamic “led to a lot of…problems,” Balch said. Hercules was quickly released.
That Hercules was not locked up then haunts Gail Bennett. She’s certain that he should have been jailed — and likely long before the attempted robbery. If police had ever considered him seriously as a suspect for the earlier murders in Adel, she believes that her husband would still be alive. “Starting with the Taco Bell [murder] on forward, as much stuff as Hercules had gotten into, yes, I thoroughly believe it could have been prevented,” she said.
Josh Moore soon began to suspect the same thing. In fact, the more time he spent investigating, the more he heard that Hercules might be responsible for yet another murder. “There was another case too,” he said. As he recalls, it was “maybe an Indian fellow who got murdered, maybe a television or an air conditioner smashed over his head.” And in fact Shailesh Patel had been beaten and murdered seven months before the killings at Bennett’s grocery. “I heard that very quickly too,” Moore said. “That’s what people were saying about Hercules, that he had committed … those two murders prior to the Bennett murder.”
Moore’s familiarity with Patel’s murder stood in sharp contrast to much of Adel today. Although most longtime residents recall the era between the murder at Taco Bell and the killings of Bennett and Browning as a terrifying time, many people have only a faint memory of Patel’s death — if they have any at all.
There was little Moore could do to probe the Patel case, which remained open. But since it was closed, documents relating to the murder of Donna Brown should be public record. “I started aggressively investigating the Taco Bell case,” he said. He didn’t get far. Not long after he’d sent an open records request seeking the GBI’s investigative file, Moore’s inquiry was shut down — by the lawyer appointed alongside him to defend Mason.
The lawyer, Clark Landrum, was not a defense attorney but a full-time prosecutor from a neighboring judicial district. That a prosecutor would be tapped to lead a capital defense team may be startling, but Moore says this was par for the course in South Georgia. “I grew up in Georgia, but I’m an outsider when you go down to Cook County,” he explains. “This is not a place where the judicial system runs in any kind of recognizable way to most lawyers.”
According to Moore, Landrum wrote him a formal letter demanding that he stop his investigation. “It turned into a huge conflict between us because I basically said, ‘I’m not willing to do that. I don’t really care what you’re saying, I’m going to go ahead and investigate this because my allegiance is to my client.’” Stunned and disturbed by Landrum’s behavior, Moore turned to the judge in the case to ask that Landrum be removed. “That turned into a big ugly brawl too,” he said.
As Moore prepared to meet the judge, accompanied by Mason and his mother, he recalls seeing Landrum leaving the office of Bob Ellis, the same prosecutor who convicted Devonia Inman for the murder at Taco Bell — and who would now prosecute Mason. Inside chambers, noting that there was “a difference of opinion” between the two lawyers assigned to Mason’s case, the judge chose to remove Moore instead of Landrum.
That is not what Mason wanted, Moore said. “The family had no faith in Clark Landrum at all and didn’t want him representing Wesley.” Moore stood firm: He and another lawyer from Atlanta would be taking the case pro bono, and that was final. The judge retorted that they’d better not ask for any money for their defense, because he wouldn’t give them a dime.
Over email, Landrum described the incident differently. Moore was “difficult to supervise,” he claimed, and would interview witnesses and then refuse to share any information with him. But he denied trying to stop Moore from looking into the Taco Bell case. “That is ridiculous,” he wrote.
Moore prevailed in taking over the case — but his investigation into Hercules’ involvement in the Taco Bell murder quickly came to an end when Mason was offered a deal for life in prison. He took it. The message was clear: Between the GBI and the prosecutors in Cook County, nobody wanted Moore to revisit the murder of Donna Brown. “As you have seen, I’m sure, in looking into this again,” he says, “a lot of doors close in your face.”
Devonia Inman was just beginning his life sentence in 2002 when he wrote a letter to the fledgling Georgia Innocence Project, pleading for help. “We started looking at his case very early on and have stayed with his case,” said Aimee Maxwell, the group’s founding executive director. To Maxwell, who has since left the GIP, the case immediately stood out for all the wrong reasons — the lack of any physical evidence tying Inman to the crime and the confounding stories offered by a parade of witnesses who either recanted or had something to gain from testifying against him. “It was very telling who the witnesses were,” she said. “You can’t figure out when they’re telling the truth. Do you really want [them] to put a man in prison for life without parole? That’s the shocking thing — and it could have possibly been death.”
Maxwell began a hunt for evidence that could be tested for DNA. Tape lifts with fingerprints recovered from Donna Brown’s car that might have contained skin cells suitable for testing had disappeared, she said. But one key piece of evidence still existed: the makeshift mask recovered from her car. In March 2011, Maxwell got the go-ahead to have it tested.
Just two months later, DNA testing linked the mask to a single source: Hercules Brown.
The revelation all but confirmed what many in Adel had long suspected: The real killer in the Taco Bell murder was Hercules — and the state had imprisoned the wrong man. To Maxwell, it was clearly grounds for Inman to receive a new trial.
As the GIP lawyers in Atlanta geared up to make the case to Judge L.A. McConnell — the same judge who presided over Inman’s original trial — down in Cook County, few had heard about the DNA. No story ran in the Adel News Tribune. Nonetheless, one man who had been a key player in Inman’s conviction had received the news: Tim Eidson, the assistant district attorney who helped send Inman to prison for life.
Eidson was no longer a prosecutor by this time. He had moved on to head the public defender’s office in neighboring Cordele, later becoming a sort of roving defense attorney, based in Alabama and representing clients all over South Georgia. In an office in Douglas, Georgia, in the fall of 2016, Eidson recalled hearing about the DNA. “Now I know that my ex-wife called me one day,” he said. “She was kind of in a tizzy because they had got a call from someone and she says, ‘Do you remember that mask you found?’ I said yeah. ‘Well they found that it had Hercules Brown’s DNA in it … and they’re saying that he might have been involved in the Taco Bell murder.’”
There was good reason for Eidson’s ex-wife to have heard the news before him: Hercules had killed her uncle. In a typical small-town connection, Eidson had once been married to William Carroll Bennett’s niece. They had recently divorced when Eidson got the phone call in 2000 that Bennett had been beaten to death. “I was like, ‘Lord have mercy,’ because I knew him. … I knew his entire family.”
Like Gail Bennett, who believes that Hercules should have been arrested for the murder of Donna Brown at Taco Bell, other members of the Bennett family were upset by the implications of the DNA. Yet Eidson maintains that, although “we had our suspicions at the time,” there was never enough evidence to indict Hercules. Lucinda Brown had provided an alibi for her son, after all, and she was well-respected in the community. Besides, Eidson said, the DNA evidence merely linked Hercules to the crime. It did not mean Inman was innocent. If the state had known there was DNA on the mask matching Hercules, Eidson said, “his name would have been there along with Devonia Inman.”
Yet Eidson and Ellis had convicted Inman by arguing that he alone had committed the crime. The DNA was compelling evidence that they had gotten it wrong — and that Inman deserved a new trial.
In January 2014, Maxwell traveled to Adel for an evidentiary hearing before Judge McConnell. She felt confident.
After the DNA results from the mask came back, GBI agent Jamy Steinberg, who with Adel Police Department detective Jimmy Hill led the investigation into the murder at Taco Bell, had gone to see Hercules in prison. In a recorded interview in June 2011, Hercules denied any involvement in Donna Brown’s murder and ever wearing the mask containing his DNA. He also denied knowing Inman. “Steinberg explained to Brown that the only profile shown in the mask was his and that DNA was very specific and if somebody else tried it on, it would show their profile as well,” Steinberg wrote in his report, adding that Hercules said “he did not remember anything about it; it had been a long time.”
Maxwell was thrilled with the interview. “It was this genius interrogation because they gave [Hercules] all the outs; he took none of them,” she said. “They backed him into a corner and he has no place to go. He can’t come back now and explain, ‘Oh, well, yeah, you know we were best friends and we were hanging out that night and, oh yeah, I had this makeshift mask that I was using, but I loaned it to him.’ He can’t do any of that now.”
At trial, Inman’s attorneys had sought to admit evidence showing that, during their investigation into Donna Brown’s murder, police had been repeatedly told that Hercules was responsible for the crime. But prosecutors balked, insisting that the allegations were unreliable and should be excluded. McConnell had agreed, ruling that absent any solid link between Hercules and the crime, speculation about his involvement would be kept from the jury. Now, standing in the Cook County courthouse, Maxwell argued that the DNA was precisely that link. “That’s the witness that tells us the truth. That’s the one piece of evidence that tells us who was actually there.”
In response, the state did an about-face. “The evidence was never that Mr. Inman acted alone,” prosecutor Jess Hornsby argued, completely contradicting the state’s theory at trial. The DNA did “nothing to exonerate Mr. Inman,” he said. “All that does is possibly implicate another person that may have been involved.”
In all, the hearing did not go particularly well. The transcripts suggest that Maxwell’s argument was scattered and rushed, and the state fought at every turn to keep additional witnesses off the stand. They included Kwame Spaulding, the jailhouse informant who previously testified that Inman had confessed to him while the two were locked up together. Now, Spaulding said he had been coerced into making this claim, through promises that the GBI would get him released. “I mean, he was telling me he’ll let me go home and he was telling me stuff to say about the man,” Spaulding said, presumably referring to Steinberg, who had taken his statement back in 1999.
Maxwell also sought to call Virginia Tatem, the witness who at trial had been so adamant that she had seen Inman driving Brown’s car the night of her murder (and whose claims about what she had seen were far-fetched at best). Maxwell wanted to ask Tatem whether she had ever received the $5,000 offered by Taco Bell for information. Tatum refused to answer any questions.
Finally, there was Hercules Brown. Not surprisingly, he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Steinberg’s testimony was terse. Maxwell wanted to know if he’d done any further investigation after learning that Hercules’s DNA was found on the mask.
“There’s been no additional investigative acts after that,” he replied.
“Did you compare the latent fingerprints [from the crime scene] which did not match my client to Mr. Brown?” she followed up.
“I just answered that question,” Steinberg said.
Steinberg has been similarly testy toward others who have questioned his work. In the wake of the murders of Bennett and Browning, Gail Bennett wrote a letter to the editor of the Adel News Tribune, complaining that she had been unable to get any answers from the GBI about its hunt for Hercules’s accomplice. Steinberg met with the family soon afterward. “He was very ugly,” Gail said. “He looked at me and said, ‘I don’t have to tell you anything.’”
If Judge McConnell was more interested in the implications of the DNA evidence than Steinberg appeared to be, he did not seem motivated to do much about it. While his decision to hold the hearing in the first place was an important step — plenty of trial judges deny such hearings when it comes to questionable convictions won in their courtrooms — it would not matter in the end. McConnell sided with the state and denied Inman a new trial — and he asked the DA to pen his ruling for him.
The eight-page ruling endorses the state’s revisionist history — adopting prosecutors’ new theory of the crime — and faulted the GIP for not offering additional evidence linking Hercules to the crime, the very evidence that McConnell had barred from Inman’s original trial. “At the hearing, Defendant presented no evidence that would implicate Hercules Brown as the killer other than the DNA on the ski mask,” it reads. The ruling acknowledged that “the DNA on the ski mask is not irrelevant,” but concluded that it was not significant enough to “produce a different verdict” if Inman was granted a new trial.
In its appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court, the GIP argued that the shifting theory of the crime was improper. The law does not allow the state to charge a person with one crime and then argue at trial or on appeal that he is responsible for an entirely different crime — a legal disconnect known as a fatal variance. The state had charged Inman as solely responsible for the robbery and murder of Donna Brown, but with Hercules’s DNA found on the ski mask they now argued that there were multiple people involved in the crime. That convenient shift essentially denied Inman the right to effectively defend himself.
But like McConnell, the Georgia Supreme Court shrugged off the argument. On December 19, 2014, it rejected Inman’s appeal. Maxwell was bewildered and devastated. “I pretty much think about this case almost every day, and I can’t figure out how I lost it,” she said. “I can’t believe that this young man … is in prison for the rest of his life based on a bunch of liars.”
Down in Adel, people were mostly unaffected by the ruling. News of the DNA match to Hercules didn’t even make the local paper until after The Intercept began its investigation into the case in 2015. To Charles Shiver, longtime reporter and editor of the News Tribune, the discovery of Hercules’s DNA on the mask had been “kind of disturbing to me,” but he deferred to the conclusions of the court. “I mean, I can’t second-guess the judge,” he said.
It wasn’t long after Maxwell’s loss before the Georgia Supreme Court that Jessica Cino stopped by her office to discuss a case.
Cino, now 40 and an assistant dean at the Georgia State University College of Law, grew up in a poor family in rural Kansas. She didn’t know anything about the criminal justice system or its failures until she went to college, when she took a class on the death penalty that changed the course of her life. “I was profoundly disturbed for the entire semester,” she recalls. It “opened my eyes to this hidden system of justice that I had no idea even existed.” Where she once hoped to become an actor, she instead applied to law school, winning a scholarship to the University of Miami based in part on her determination to open an innocence project at the school, which she did. After graduation she went to work at a silk-stocking firm in San Francisco, where she spent much of her time working on capital cases that the firm took on pro bono and developing an expertise in forensics and DNA evidence.
It was one of those pro bono cases that woke her up to the real-world injustices of the system. Her firm had taken on the case of a black man named Cory Maye who faced execution after being wrongfully convicted for shooting a white police officer in Mississippi. During a hearing in the case, Cino remembers seeing for the first time a dramatic representation of a racial divide in the justice system. The courthouse in Hattiesburg was an old-fashioned, two-tiered courtroom, complete with a gallery where black attendees were once forced to sit before integration. But that day, the courtroom was segregated anyway. When she walked in, she said, “all of the people who supported the officer and his family and the prosecutor were all white; they were all on one side of the courtroom. And then, Cory’s supporters were mostly African-Americans, so they were on the other side.”
Later, when Cino was offered a job at GSU, she jumped at the opportunity. She knew how badly the South needed skilled death penalty lawyers. After arriving in Atlanta in 2009, she quickly developed a relationship with the GIP.
On the day Cino stopped by to chat with Maxwell, she had a different case on her mind. But Maxwell had just lost Inman’s appeal. “She started telling me about the case. It sounded horrendous,” she said. Maxwell told her about the court rulings and the DNA evidence that pointed to a clear miscarriage of justice. That the Georgia Supreme Court had basically turned its back meant that Inman was out of meaningful options to challenge his conviction. “I think even my own notions of how the criminal justice system worked and how pivotal DNA evidence is in cases was tested,” she said. It wasn’t like anyone was asking the state to just set Inman free, Cino thought, only that he deserved a new trial, based on the DNA. After all, if jurors had known about it in 2001, it is hard to imagine that they would have convicted him.
Maxwell sent Cino a copy of the trial transcript. She devoured it. “I would just keep turning the page and say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. How did this guy get convicted?’” she recalls. The miscarriage of justice was so clear, she knew she had to do something. If she didn’t, she remembers thinking, it would alter the way she thought of herself as a lawyer. “This is a case that cries out for people to look at and to re-examine, and I wouldn’t be able to just walk away from it.”
That July, Cino and a research assistant packed into her silver convertible Mini Cooper and headed out from Atlanta, driving more than three hours southeast to meet Inman in the Georgia State Prison in Reidsville. She wanted to get a read on him. “I’ve met a lot of guys behind bars over the years. Some of them are totally trying to bullshit me, some of them are brutally honest and candid about their history,” she said. “So I wanted to go and just size him up and see what he had to say about the case, but also, how sincere was he?”
At the prison, she spent an hour talking with Inman. She would return four more times over the next few months. He was clearly “seriously depressed” and living under horrible circumstances. And she believed him when he said he did not kill Donna Brown. “When he started talking about the case, it rang true.” He told her about his run-ins with the law in California and about his rocky relationships with women, and how he’d gotten into an argument with his girlfriend, Christy Lima, on the night of the murder. “So he was forthcoming with all of that, but he was adamant … that he did not kill Donna Brown and that he had never killed anybody.”
He also expressed remorse about not taking more seriously the state’s case against him. “He was just so sure that a jury wouldn’t convict him,” she said. “That’s sort of where, I think even emotionally, his development stopped. He very much just relives the two to three weeks surrounding the Taco Bell crime every single day of his life, and that’s what he focuses on.”
Talking to Inman is not easy. More often than not his voice is flat and he is despairing about his circumstances. He doesn’t understand why no one believes him, particularly since the DNA evidence points to Hercules Brown, a man Inman insists he did not know, except by reputation. Without any good answers, Inman lives in a perpetual melancholic loop, reliving often minute details about what was going on in the weeks and hours before the Taco Bell murder and punishing himself with a string of what-ifs.
He returns to the same set of memories over and over: how Marquetta Thomas, Lima’s sister, was not at home most of that evening; how a car had arrived at the house late that night, shining its bright lights through the windows, possibly dropping someone off. And he remembers playing outside in the dirt with his young son earlier that afternoon and how his son pleaded with him not to leave. “I kind of feel bad when I think about it now because it’s like he was really trying to tell me something that he seen, I guess. It was like, I’m gonna go away for a long time,” he recalled. “If you look at the way he was crying, because he was really crying, he was holding my shirt and wouldn’t let go.”
Inman has not seen his son in more than 20 years. And there is a good chance that he might never see him again — not free in the world, at least — unless Cino can find a way to convince the courts that Inman is innocent. She is determined to do so and since 2015, has spent hundreds of hours working on his case.
At the heart of Inman’s predicament is a problem that many Americans do not understand. For all of the rights offered to people accused of crimes, there is no right that explicitly protects a person against a wrongful conviction. The Constitution is mostly silent on this point, concerned instead with whether a defendant received a fair trial. Did you have minimally competent lawyers? Were you able to cross-examine the state’s witnesses? Barring any violations of due process, the system is satisfied — even if the wrong person is convicted.
“I think one of the biggest myths about the criminal justice system and the way it functions is that most of the time we get it right, but in the slim chance we get it wrong, we’ll be able to correct it down the road,” says Cino. “That’s just not true. That’s not true on any level.” In many ways it is a rigged system. “Once you’re convicted, it’s meant to keep you there. It is not meant to re-examine your case, no matter the circumstances” — say, if a victim or witness recants, or if a jailhouse snitch was proven to be unreliable. “The system is designed to keep you wherever they put you once they convict you,” she says. “That’s why there’s that presumption of innocence before you get convicted, but once you’re convicted, it’s a presumption of guilty, and that is almost impossible to undo.”
The rise of DNA evidence has helped some — but has also lulled people into a belief that it is able to rectify all wrongs. DNA is only available in a fraction of cases. In many, it has proven critical in correcting miscarriages of justice — for example, in rape cases in which a person has misidentified their attacker. But as Inman learned the hard way, even when DNA is available, it is only as good as the people considering it. Often, the state fights against testing DNA, then denies its significance when it is matched to another person. And, like McConnell, many judges will decline to grant a new trial, even when forensic evidence points to a wrongful conviction.
This harsh reality has left Inman with little legal recourse. His best shot is a true Hail Mary pass: a writ of habeas corpus based on actual innocence — what amounts to a legal unicorn. But in order to create the best odds, Cino would have to find a constitutional violation in the case — that Inman’s previous lawyers were deficient, for example, or that prosecutors failed to turn over important evidence — to serve as the basis for the appeal. “It’s a shot in the dark,” she says. But she is determined to try and has wrangled a pro bono legal team from one of Atlanta’s prestige firms, Troutman Sanders, to help her.
Cino constantly worries about the case and wonders if she’ll actually be able to help Inman. “Because whenever I talk to him on the phone…he always asks me, ‘What are the chances of me getting out? Do I have a good chance?’ He wants to be optimistic,” she says. “The lawyer in me knows the reality of what he faces.” So she’s caught, trying to “manage his expectations without crushing his last hope.” She wakes up in the middle of the night, sweating, worrying about Inman’s case, as well as Inman himself. “I don’t know what it’s like for him day to day in prison, let alone day to day in prison where you’re an innocent man,” she says. “I can’t imagine that. Then, to have your one chance [at freedom] be so slight, I feel horrible as…a human being that this is how bad this system is.”
But there is one thing that could help Inman’s case almost immediately, Cino says: “You would need Hercules Brown to come forward and admit to the crime and also say that Devonia didn’t have a role in it.”
In the three years since we began working on this story, we have written numerous letters to Hercules in prison. He has responded just once, in July 2016. He did not explicitly deny committing the murder of Donna Brown, but wrote, “I don’t have any thing to say about Devonia Inman nor his conviction or any thing pertaining to his case.” If Hercules continues to stay silent, it seems likely that the truth behind the Adel murders will remain untold.
On a Sunday afternoon in 2017 we finally got in touch with Hercules’s mother, Lucinda Brown. We had hoped to ask her about the alibi she had provided for Hercules, and how she felt about the many rumors about her son. Over the phone, we asked her if she could help us sort out the truth of the matter. Not surprisingly, she refused. “You’ll never know what’s true and what’s not,” she said. “So I don’t have anything to give you.”
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When a brutal murder rocks a small Southern town, residents and police are shocked. Could the new guy in town be the one who who did it? Yes, the cops say, he is. Case solved. But then another murder happens. And another. In the end: four bodies, two convictions, and one man in jail for a crime he likely did not commit. Welcome to Murderville, Georgia.
As Devonia Inman prepares to go on trial for his life, the case against him starts to unravel. Meanwhile three more violent murders shock the town. Is the real killer still out there?
It was just after 11 a.m. on Friday, November 10, 2000, and Norfolk Southern Railroad engineer Lloyd Crumley and his brakeman Corbit Belflower were securing their train before jumping off to grab lunch at a small store abutting the tracks on the south side of Adel, Georgia.
Crumley, Bellflower, and another colleague, conductor Wayne Peters, often dropped into Bennett’s Cash and Carry for lunch when working in town. The owner, William Carroll Bennett, was a legend in the community where his family went back generations. He was known for his generosity and would often extend credit to families who needed groceries but couldn’t afford to pay for them. “He was a saint,” said former Adel police Officer Tim Balch.
Peters hopped off the train and headed to the store ahead of Crumley and Belflower, who followed not far behind. In his nearly 40 years working for the railroad Crumley had seen beauty — pristine landscapes stretching out for miles; a river flowing past as his train moved across a truss high above. He’d also seen tragedy; he’d lost count of the number of people who had perished on the tracks when his train was too close to stop. That did not prepare him for what he saw that day inside Bennett’s grocery.
As he and Belflower approached the store, a man exited, holding a bat of some kind that appeared to be stained with paint. As the two men reached the store’s front door, a second man, carrying a cash register, burst through to the outside. Crumley asked what he was doing. The man threw the cash register at them. Crumley fell backward, but Belflower avoided the blow and raced toward the man as he hopped into the driver’s seat of an older blue Cadillac. Crumley scrambled to his feet and as the car raced away, the two men called out the license plate number, which Crumley scribbled onto his hand with a pen he always kept in his shirt pocket.
Just inside the store’s front door, Crumley and Belflower found their colleague, Peters. He’d been hit in the head and part of his scalp was peeled back. He was alive. Further inside, the men realized that Bennett and his employee, Rebecca Browning, had been bludgeoned to death. Although Peters would recover from his injuries, he would have no recollection of what happened that day — of who hit him and with what.
The brazen lunchtime murder of two beloved community members stunned a small town still reeling from the brutal murder of Shailesh Patel just seven months earlier. Despite a grisly crime scene filled with physical evidence, no arrests had been made. The crime remains unsolved to this day. But this time, the cops got a break. Crumley and Belflower’s quick action to copy down the plate number of the blue Cadillac produced almost immediate results: Less than an hour later, Hercules Brown was arrested while driving the car.
Hercules’s ankles were shackled that afternoon when he was brought in for an interview with Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Jamy Steinberg, the same man who had led the investigation into the September 1998 murder of Donna Brown outside the Adel Taco Bell. Steinberg had been given information back then that strongly implicated Hercules as being responsible for Donna Brown’s death, but judging from the police report he never followed the lead. Instead, Steinberg focused his attention on a 20-year-old from out of town, Devonia Inman, who the state said had acted alone in ambushing Donna Brown in the Taco Bell parking lot, robbing her of the evening’s receipts before shooting her in the face. Inman insisted that he was not involved in the crime — he was at his girlfriend Christy Lima’s home at the time — but was nonetheless arrested and charged with the murder. The day that Bennett and Browning were beaten to death Inman was still in jail awaiting trial.
Under questioning, Hercules denied that Hercules was even his name, so Steinberg called in Adel police investigator Jimmy Hill. The town’s veteran and only detective, Hill had worked with Steinberg on the Donna Brown case. Hill positively identified Hercules. The 20-year-old relented; yes, that was his name — but he didn’t know anything about any crime at Bennett’s grocery. Hercules was booked into jail.
In Greek mythology, Hercules is the half-mortal son of Zeus. The goddess Hera was furious that Zeus had cheated on her and was vengeful toward Hercules. She sent two snakes into his crib to kill him, but it didn’t work; the powerful infant crushed them both. Indeed, Hercules became known not only for his strength, but also for his temper. He wore a lion skin with the head still attached that came up over his forehead like a mask, and he carried a large club, his favorite weapon.
In Adel, the life of Hercules Brown has become something of a legend. Everybody remembers him, giving some version of a similar tale: a formidable young man from a good family who took a bad turn.
Hercules was funny and did well in school, and he excelled in both football and baseball. He was such a large and muscular child that he needed a special-ordered uniform; he could easily have used his strength to dominate on the field, but he didn’t. He wouldn’t hurt a fly, recalled his youth sports coach. Hercules stopped playing sports in high school and instead joined the band, playing trombone and baritone. In a 1997 quiz for band members titled “Getting to Know You,” Hercules wrote that his favorite piece of music was “Mozart” and that his greatest extravagance was his hair. He kept a Bible at his bedside, would like to visit Australia, and should play himself in the movies, he wrote. He described himself as “carefree.” Hercules also worked at the Taco Bell in Adel, often as a closer.
If Hercules was as carefree as he claimed, at some point things changed. Why is not entirely clear, though many who knew him as a teenager blame drug use for his change in temperament. Tim Balch, the former Adel police officer, said that in those days Hercules was trying to build “street cred.” He had heard that Hercules was selling drugs out of the Taco Bell drive-thru, although police never proved it. Tim Eidson, assistant district attorney of the Alapaha Judicial Circuit, said that Hercules was obviously high on something when he was arrested for the Bennett and Browning murders, though Hercules denied it.
Others say that Hercules was simply a “thug.” He threatened his girlfriend and was known for trying to rob people or burglarize houses and cars, according to Lima, Inman’s girlfriend in the summer of 1998. “This boy had a violent streak in him, and everybody in Adel knew that,” she said. “Everybody was scared of him.” Many people were also scared of his mother, Lucinda, who worked at the state Division of Family and Children Services, which had the power to take people’s children away. Lucinda had “pull,” Lima said — the kind of pull that kept people from saying anything bad about her son, regardless of the circumstances. If the extent of her power was less real than perceived, numerous people nevertheless recall Adel residents being wary of coming forward when Hercules acted out, afraid that Lucinda Brown would take away custody of their children or cut off access to benefits like food stamps.
Balch had a similar impression. “His mother was always very, very, very overprotective,” he said. Whenever her son had a run-in with the Adel police, Lucinda did not hesitate to come to the station to complain. Officers would hold their tongues in response. They knew they had to rely on her cooperation in child abuse cases, and they did not wish to ruffle her feathers. “I don’t know a good way to put this without being ugly,” Balch said, “but you don’t want to do something to mess the relationship up.”
Still others, like Balch’s then boss, former Chief Kirk Gordon, and prosecutor Eidson recall Lucinda and her family as kind, respected members of the community. “Just super good people, just as nice as they could be,” said Gordon.
Indeed, in a rather jaw-dropping revelation, Eidson said that it was actually Lucinda who provided an alibi for her son on the evening Donna Brown was killed. According to Lucinda, Eidson recalled, Hercules was either at home asleep or possibly returning from a school trip at the time of the murder. “In any event, she gave an alibi for Hercules,” he said. Despite the obvious conflict of interest, officials apparently accepted her explanation at face value. Sure, there was “innuendo” that Hercules might have been involved in the crime, Eidson recalled, but there was nothing that would outweigh Lucinda’s assurances. “There wasn’t any reason to disbelieve her at the time,” he said. “She was a well-respected citizen.”
On a winter day in early 2001 — less than three months after the brutal murders of Bennett and Browning — defense attorney Melinda Ryals received a letter at the public defender’s headquarters in neighboring Tifton, Georgia. For months she had been working on one of the most significant cases of her career, defending Devonia Inman, who faced the death penalty for the murder of Donna Brown — the first death penalty trial in Cook County in a generation. The letter that arrived at Ryals’s office that day was dated January 30. To her surprise, it came from LarRisha Chapman, who was poised to take the stand as one of the state’s key witnesses against Inman.
Chapman, then 16, worked the closing shift at Taco Bell the night Brown was murdered and was one of the last people to see her alive. She initially told investigators that she’d seen nothing “unusual or suspicious” outside the restaurant that night, but eventually changed her story, claiming that while waiting for her ride, she actually heard Devonia Inman’s voice coming from some weeds near the parking lot curb line, a detail that neatly fit the cops’ theory that someone had been lying in wait to attack Brown.
Ryals had recently gone to see Chapman, who expressed gratitude for the visit in her letter. “I’m so glad that you came to speak with me on this situation,” Chapman wrote. She was writing to Ryals now so that she could “clear up the huge lie I told years ago.”
“I, LarRisha Nicole Chapman, admit that I lied on the statement I wrote about I could recognize the voice of a Mr. Inman,” she wrote. “I don’t even know what his voice sounds like. I’ve never even heard his voice before. I didn’t see anyone in the bushes either.” Investigators had relentlessly harassed her, Chapman explained. “I was sick of it and so I lied to stop them from bothering me and I thought it was over. I only made it worse by lying. I’ve got to get the truth out because I haven’t been able to sleep good since I said this.”
Chapman wrote that she wanted to replace her previous statements with this confession, which she insisted was the truth. She did not want to take the stand and lie. “I was young and I didn’t know how to handle this kind of thing. But now I’m sorry that I lied. Please can you help me to get off the stand and try to straighten this huge lie that I told?”
Ryals shared the letter with prosecutors.
Chapman was not the only one who tried to recant what she said about the crime at Taco Bell. According to Marquetta Thomas, the first person to implicate Inman, she herself had twice tried to tell authorities that she wanted to change her statement, including after she’d been subpoenaed to appear as a state witness against Inman. “They kept getting smart with me, telling me they was going to hold me in contempt of court. I was like, ‘He didn’t do it, yo.’ They never paid any attention.”
If the state’s theory of the crime seemed to be falling apart in the months before the trial, prosecutors did not seem troubled. Nor did they seem concerned with the possibility that Hercules, who had long been rumored to be truly responsible for the murder of Donna Brown and now sat in a local jail cell accused of brutally killing Bennett and Browning, might have been responsible for Donna Brown’s death too. All the while, the horrific murder of Shailesh Patel had yet to be solved. If any of these factors should have given prosecutors pause, perhaps to reconsider their case against Inman, they instead were ignored. The capital trial continued to move forward.
The trial of Devonia Inman began on June 19, 2001, at the Cook County Courthouse in downtown Adel. Representing the state was Robert “Bob” Ellis, the judicial circuit’s elected district attorney. In his 40s, with a conservative side-part and moustache, Ellis had the politician’s skill of projecting folksy humility while harboring ruthless tactics. “The Southern gentleman is how he presented himself,” says Earline Goodman, who worked on Inman’s defense team, attending the trial from start to finish. Ellis’s image would later be tarnished after he was exposed, over the course of a federal corruption probe, of sexual misconduct with a confidential drug informant. The informant accused him of rape, but Ellis insisted that his acts were consensual. He eventually pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Today, Ellis is a boat salesman and part-time Baptist preacher. In a 2015 interview, he defended his prosecution of Inman, while insisting that remembered very little about the case. “I can only tell you at the time, that we felt strongly that he was guilty, or we wouldn’t have gone forward,” he says.
Ellis was accompanied by Eidson, the assistant DA, an affable, slightly younger attorney who would go on to head the public defender’s office in nearby Cordele, Georgia. He, too, ran afoul of the law after Inman’s trial; in 2007, Eidson was indicted on federal corruption charges after allegedly interfering in a drug case involving his wife. He was acquitted, but was later sued in a class-action brought by the Southern Center for Human Rights and the firm Arnold & Porter, which charged him and others in his office with shockingly inadequate defense work on behalf of indigent clients. (The case was settled in 2015.) Eidson also defends Inman’s conviction, although he says he believed at the time that he had not acted alone, which contradicts the theory that he and Ellis presented to the jury. “If the courts give Devonia Inman a new trial you’re not going to see me arguing about it in the papers or getting mad about it,” Eidson said. Still, he insists, “from the evidence that was presented during that time … I just believe Devonia was involved with it.”
Leading Inman’s defense was David Perry, who has since died, along with Ryals, his co-chair. According to Goodman, it was Ryals who first took the case, aggressively gathering evidence the police had ignored. The two were a close team, Goodman says, with a shared sense of adventure — a local judge used to joke that they were like Thelma and Louise. “Melinda and I, we went to so many people’s houses. We learned street names. Every lead we got, we’d go to,” Goodman said. But Ryals, who now works at the Georgia Capital Defender’s Office, felt daunted by the challenge of a capital trial, Goodman says. She asked Perry to join her — and he ended up taking over the trial strategy. “David was first chair. We had to go along with what David said,” Goodman said, with obvious frustration. In her opinion, Ryals could have won the case herself.
Indeed, among the leads Goodman and Ryals had pursued was that Hercules was actually responsible for the murder of Donna Brown. They’d heard persistent talk about this around town. Ryals tried to get into evidence testimony from a number of people who pointed to Hercules as the real culprit but was rebuffed — both by Perry, who seemed disinterested in an alternate-suspect defense, and Judge L.A. McConnell who refused to allow jurors to hear any of it. None of the evidence implicating Hercules was reliable, he concluded.
Goodman is 61, with white hair, a warm smile and a slightly self-deprecating air. She was eager to talk about the case — and firm in her belief that what happened to Inman was a miscarriage of justice. “My first impression of Devonia [was] that he was a punk, but he wasn’t no killer,” she said. Like others, she described him as having a big mouth but little to back it up. “He was the pretty boy. He wore the nice shoes, the up-to-date clothes. A lot of those people from Adel are below poverty, so I think they were jealous of Devonia.” He was also spoiled. It was Goodman’s job to “babysit” him throughout the trial. “He’d be telling me he wanted a cigarette or he wanted to see his mama. I’d have to go over [to the jail] and be real nice and get them to let his mama come in there to see him and things like that. I just don’t think Devonia had guts enough to pull the trigger.”
Inman’s weeklong trial was lengthy by Cook County standards. “South Georgia, baby, you going to be tried in just a few days,” Goodman said. Even as he faced a possible death sentence, she remembers him being calm — perhaps even overconfident. “I don’t really think that Devonia really understood what he was up against,” she said. He seemed to think, “Well I didn’t do it, so they can’t do nothing to me.”
There were certainly reasons to doubt that the state would win a conviction. In his opening statement, Eidson conceded “there was really no physical evidence in this case.” No gun or money was ever found. Fingerprints taken from the scene did not match Inman. But Eidson spun these glaring holes in the case as proof that Inman was a mastermind who had left no traces behind. “Whoever had thought this out had planned it quite well,” he said.
With no hard evidence, Ellis and Eidson relied on an array of witnesses whose testimony was contradictory, confusing, and at times completely counter to the prosecutors’ theory of the crime. Several did little more than paint Inman in a vaguely criminal light, rather than offer proof that he had actually committed the murder of Donna Brown. Among the first was Zachary Payne, the man who first tipped the GBI to the fact that Inman had access to a gun — although not the same type of gun used to murder Brown. Payne was brought from a drug detox facility in order to testify and he told a disjointed tale about Inman showing up at his door and pointing a gun at him. It was not clear what had prompted the alleged confrontation or what connection it had to the murder two weeks later.
If Payne’s testimony was more prejudicial than probative, other witnesses were wildly improper, at least by prevailing legal standards. Under the justification of presenting “similar transactions” to the crime in question, the state called a slew of Sacramento police officers to describe Inman’s previous run-ins with the law in California. Most dated back to when he was a juvenile — and none rose to the level of violence in the killing of Donna Brown. There was a car theft when he was 18, the robbery of a pizza delivery person when he was 15, and a traffic stop in which drugs were found. The third incident prompted a call for a mistrial by Perry, which was denied. McConnell would later instruct the jury to disregard the testimony of a police sergeant who described the drug incident, but by then, jurors had heard plenty about Inman’s checkered past. In a significant leap, the state cast Inman as intrinsically criminal, a man whose previous record showed that he was as a natural-born killer. “It’s a logical progression of a propensity to commit crimes,” Ellis said in his closing statement during the sentencing phase, urging jurors to hand down the death penalty. He compared Inman to a leopard hunting its prey. “He won’t change his spots.”
The witnesses from California would likely not have made it to the stand had the trial taken place today. In 2011, Georgia legislators finally overhauled the state’s ambiguous and antiquated rules of evidence, imposing desperately needed guidelines on trial lawyers and judges for what qualified as admissible testimony. For decades prior, Georgia had been the only jurisdiction in the country where prosecutors could admit evidence of previous crimes to show “bent of mind” or “course of conduct” — language that the state supreme court itself had described as “difficult to define and slippery in application.” In the hands of the wrong prosecutor, such evidence could prejudice a jury completely against a defendant, making it more likely to convict, no matter how weak the evidence.
Eidson was one such prosecutor. “He was the king of similar transactions,” Goodman recalls. “But I never understood how that little penny ante stuff in California was a similar transaction to [the Taco Bell murder].” The phrases “bent of mind” and “course of conduct” appear again and again in the trial transcript, which also captures the generally slipshod approach to evidence. Over numerous tedious passages, McConnell wonders aloud about the propriety of a given witness, including when it’s too late. “It seemed like everybody forgot they went to law school, including me,” he joked at one point after having allowed improper questioning of a witness to go unchecked.
It’s unclear how much of an impact the California witnesses had in the end. “To me that was a total waste,” says Steven King, one of the jurors at Inman’s trial. Their testimony “didn’t really matter at all back in the jury room.” In fact, King remembers most of the state witnesses being fairly unconvincing.
King, a tall white man in his 40s, lives in rural Hahira on family land dense with pine trees that mark the border of neighboring Lowndes County, visible just outside his window. King’s relative isolation made him attractive to both sides when it came to jury selection: In a place as small as Adel, finding jurors unconnected to a high-profile case was a major challenge. Today, King is a mail carrier and knows a lot of people in town. But at the time of Inman’s trial, King had just finished six years in the Army. “I didn’t even know we had a Taco Bell, let alone a murder here,” he said.
The jury was sequestered — a rare phenomenon in Cook County. King remembers police deputies escorting him and his fellow jurors around town in a little yellow school bus. Although he wasn’t thrilled at the circumstances, he took the job seriously, making detailed notes throughout the trial and recording his impressions of various witnesses.
Among those King found least convincing was the newspaper carrier, Virginia Tatem, despite her being presented as the state’s star witness. On the witness stand, Tatem swore that she had seen Inman fleeing the scene of the crime — a memory so significant that she compared it to remembering where she was the day Ronald Reagan was shot. “I’ll never forget for the rest of my life what he looks like,” she said. “His face will be etched in my memory forever.” But during cross examination, Perry picked apart elements of her testimony, to show that her recollections were hardly reliable. She claimed to have seen police cars racing to the Taco Bell with their lights and sirens on, which contradicted testimony from the officers, who said they had never turned on either. And while the GBI report showed that Tatem had told Steinberg she saw “four or five black people” in a brown car that was following Inman, on the stand, she insisted that she had only seen three people.
Like many eyewitnesses who give repeated statements, Tatem’s claims to police evolved significantly since she first came forward with information, getting increasingly detailed as time passed. Even her courtroom testimony included details she had never brought up before. “I could see the Pound Puppy in the back window when the car went down the road,” she said at one point, only after being shown a photograph of the car in question.
Under cross-examination, Tatem was asked why she had waited a month to call police — and only after seeing the ad in the paper offering a hefty cash reward in exchange for information. “The $5,000 didn’t have anything to do with it,” she insisted. “It had to do with the fact that this woman had died, and she had a son. I have children of my own. I cannot live with the idea to think that someone took this boy’s mother from him for a robbery.”
In the jury box, King was skeptical. Tatem was probably out for the reward, he thought. And even if she wasn’t, the things she claimed to have seen and heard while standing on the corner of Adams and Fourth Street at 2 a.m. were pretty much impossible. Tatem maintained that she had heard a gunshot (despite being across multiple lanes of interstate from the Taco Bell) and that she had seen the cars pull into the Pizza Hut and heard the group speaking to one another some five blocks away. It struck King as totally implausible. “Anybody that’s from Adel knows you can’t see the Pizza Hut because the Dairy Queen is right there,” King said. He dismissed her testimony, he said, and he remembers other jurors doing the same.
If Tatem lacked credibility, other witnesses were far more disastrous. Despite their attempts to recant their statements months before, the state put both Marquetta Thomas and LarRisha Chapman on the stand. In his opening statement, Eidson alluded to their attempts to recant their statements. “I don’t know what she’ll testify to here at trial, whether she’ll change her mind or whatever,” he said about Thomas, vowing to confront her with her earlier statements if she tried to change her story.
He did the same with Chapman. In fact, under direct examination, Eidson had Chapman read her letter to Ryals out loud, then walked her through her previous statement to the GBI, including how she had recognized Inman’s voice from the weeds. If the point was to confuse the jury while impeaching his own witness, Eidson succeeded; as he concluded his questioning, he went so far as to blame Chapman for Donna Brown’s death. Showing her a photograph of Brown’s lifeless body, Eidson said that if Chapman had told somebody that she’d seen a man in the weeds that night, “Ms. Brown would still be alive.”
“But I didn’t see nobody,” Chapman said, reiterating that she had made up the story. Eidson ignored her: “If you had gone in and told Ms. Brown there was somebody hiding in the bushes, she might still be alive today.”
While Marquetta Thomas initially threw Inman under the bus by claiming that he had not been at the home she shared with her sister on the night that Brown was murdered — and that he had showed up the next day with a wad of cash — on the stand, Thomas mostly changed her tune. She insisted that she had been harassed by law enforcement until she provided them with the information they wanted to hear. She was motivated to do so, she said, because she got the feeling that the cops were angling to pin the crime on her, so she went on the offense, implicating Inman.
For all of the confusion and changing narratives, to King there was only one credible witness brought by the state — so credible, he would vote to convict, despite all the questions about the state’s evidence. “Without Kwame Spaulding,” he said, “they had no case.”
Spaulding was 19 and locked up on cocaine-related charges in January 1999 when Inman was indicted for Donna Brown’s murder. The two briefly shared a cell, and it was during that time that Spaulding said Inman gave up the details of his crime. Spaulding asked the jailers to contact the GBI, saying that if he could get some kind of consideration on his case, he would tell investigators what Inman had said. There is no paperwork commemorating any particular deal that DA Ellis might’ve offered, but Spaulding still shared his story, suggesting that he was assured there was something in it for him. According to Spaulding, Inman said that he’d done the job with his girlfriend’s sister and that the two had waited in the weeds for Brown to emerge from the restaurant. He said Inman confessed to shooting Brown with a .44 caliber gun and that the two then split the proceeds of the crime, leaving the deposit bag in Brown’s car.
The details in Spaulding’s testimony caught King’s attention. He seemed to have information that only the killer would know — like the caliber of weapon used to kill Brown. “It wasn’t discussed and then Kwame knew it, knew what the caliber was,” he recalled. “Kwame to me was a very credible witness.”
Although Eidson told jurors that the detail about the .44 hadn’t been released to the public before Spaulding came forward, it was not true. That fact had been repeatedly printed in the newspaper. Spaulding’s story also included the assertion that the bank bag was found in the car; it wasn’t, but that erroneous detail was also reported more than once.
It took just two rounds of voting for the jury to decide that Inman was guilty. In a paradoxical twist, when it came to sentencing, the same evidence that convinced King to convict Inman was not enough to overcome his doubt about imposing a death sentence. “The murder weapon wasn’t found and there’s no eyewitness,” he said. “There was not enough evidence for me to vote for the death penalty.”
The jury ultimately decided that Inman should be sentenced to life without parole.
Inman’s girlfriend Lima was dismayed by the outcome. Of all the witnesses, she was the only one to maintain her original story throughout the case — from police questioning through trial testimony and beyond — without either embellishing or recanting. Inman was home with her the night that Brown was killed, she said. But in his closing arguments, Eidson painted her as an unreliable whore whose testimony should be dismissed, which infuriated Lima. “They just kept trying to put me down because I was a stripper, and I had kids from different dads,” she recalled. “And I was like, wait a minute, what does that have to do with Devonia being on trial for murder? You know, the trial was just a mess. To me it wasn’t even a trial. It was whatever the prosecutor said.” She insists that her background is irrelevant. “I don’t care what my life was like, what I did; what I said was true,” she said. “He’s innocent and I’ve been saying that from day one.”
When a brutal murder rocks a small Southern town, residents and police are shocked. Could the new guy in town be the one who who did it? Yes, the cops say, he is. Case solved. But then another murder happens. And another. In the end: four bodies, two convictions, and one man in jail for a crime he likely did not commit. Welcome to Murderville, Georgia.
A single mom was gunned down at a Taco Bell in Adel, Georgia. Cops quickly closed the case. But did they get the right man? Welcome to Murderville.
In a section of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation website listing unsolved crimes, a few short paragraphs detail the death of a man in a small town more than 18 years ago. “On April 8, 2000, at approximately 1:20 p.m., Shailesh Patel was found murdered at his brother-in-law’s residence located on North Gordon Avenue, Adel, Cook County, Georgia,” it reads. “Mr. Patel, who lived in Locust Grove in Henry County, GA., had been staying at this residence and managing the E Z Mart Convenience store while his brother-in-law and family were vacationing in California.”
There’s no photograph of Patel on the GBI profile, only a forensic artist’s sketch of “a man seen in the area several hours prior to the incident” – a possible witness. Patel had been “stabbed and beaten,” it says, although this hardly captures the brutality of the crime. Former Adel Police Officer Tim Balch remembers arriving at the house, on a quiet block on the north side of town. “When I got there,” he says, “I just peeped in and it was like, ‘We’re calling GBI. This is bad.’” There was blood everywhere and signs of struggle throughout the home. Patel had been bashed over the head with a television. Balch, a large tattooed Army veteran who drives a Hummer, had seen his share of bloodshed. But the savagery of this scene stands out in his mind. Whoever committed the crime had to be “a straight psychopath.”
The GBI concluded it was a robbery gone bad but was otherwise tight-lipped. Additional details were published in the local Adel News Tribune. Patel, a 37-year-old immigrant from India, was only in Adel temporarily to help his brother-in-law with the convenience store attached to a gas station near the home where he lived. According to his nephew, Manishh, a college student in Atlanta at the time, Patel would ordinarily eat dinner in a neighboring town after his shift. But that night, he had apparently walked the few blocks back to the house and discovered a burglary underway. After Patel failed to show up at work the next morning, police were called.
There was a cruel irony to his death. Manishh told the News Tribune that Patel planned to move to Adel with his wife and two kids, in part to avoid the crime he had encountered in other places. Murders in Adel were rare — and the neighborhood where Patel was killed was particularly peaceful. “The only noise you ever heard around here was children playing,” the minister at the church next door told the newspaper.
Yet Patel’s death was the second violent killing in Adel in less than two years. In the fall of 1998, a woman named Donna Brown, the single mother of a 7-year-old son, had been robbed and shot dead in front of the Taco Bell where she worked, less than two miles away. A suspect was quickly arrested and jailed in that case. But now there was another murderer on the loose, a terrifying prospect in a town of just more than 5,000 that covers only eight square miles. “We have never had anything like this happen here before,” an elderly neighbor told the newspaper after Patel’s death.
Still, Patel’s family had warned him to be careful. His brother-in-law, Vishnu, had been robbed at the EZ Mart several months earlier by a “masked man brandishing an Exacto knife,” according to a separate newspaper report. Patel told police that a “stocky black man” had forced him to the store counter after 10 p.m. on October 26, 1999 and said, “Give me all the money or I’ll kill you.” He then punched Patel in the mouth and fled.
Whether police sought a link between the 1999 robbery and the 2000 murder is unclear. Nor is it clear what was done with all the physical evidence left at the house on North Gordon Avenue, which was ripe for forensic testing. The case was presumably in good hands: The GBI routinely took over cases in the rural towns of South Georgia, which did not have the resources or technology to investigate major crimes. In the year Patel was killed, the GBI was taking full advantage of new DNA technology; by 2002, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the agency boasted that it was matching an average of “six crimes a month” to criminals in the state’s DNA database.
Yet the trail to Patel’s murderer quickly went cold. In contrast to the swift arrest following the murder of Donna Brown at the Taco Bell in 1998, the Patel case would be handed off to “a plethora of agents” over the next 18 years, according to GBI Special Agent Mark Pro, who insists that the agency is still working on solving the crime today. “We’re dealing in an area in South Georgia that is very small, and the neighborhood and the people that live in that area are very close-knit,” he said, explaining that he did not want to tip off any potential suspects by divulging further details about the agency’s investigation. But at least one man who worked on the Patel case was surprised to hear it was never solved. Former GBI agent Richard Deas remembers taking photos and dusting for fingerprints. He retired in 2001, figuring the killer was someone who had been in trouble with the law “or would be in trouble with the law again.”
Regardless, the Patel family says it has not heard from the GBI in years. Now in his 40s, Manishh Patel says the family never received basic answers about what happened or why the crime was not solved. He could understand this coming from a rural police force in a town like Adel, he said. But the GBI is “like the FBI of Georgia, the highest criminal investigators in our state,” he says. “So that’s the question that I have. What did they do?”
Photos: Ryan Christopher Jones for The Intercept
Adel, Georgia, the seat of Cook County, sits just off Interstate 75, a north-south artery that runs from South Florida all the way north to the Great Lakes. Six lanes of highway slice through the west side of town, with an overpass bridging the divide. An Alabama news columnist once described Adel as “a little town nestled between billboards,” which remains an apt description. The highway is lined with dueling displays offering nostalgia or redemption; approaching from the north, signs aggressively promote the Magnolia Plantation, an oversized Greek revival-style home where travelers can buy peach marinades and praline pecans. Farther down the highway, a series of eye-popping religious billboards — sponsored by the defunct website I-Will-Be-Back.org — portray the harrowing alternative to Christian salvation, with ashen zombie-humans depicting the damned. In one fiery scene, Jesus’s flowing white robes are surrounded by tanks and gun-pointing soldiers, below the words “I Am Still In Control.”
Located some 40 miles from the Florida border, Cook County was built up along the Georgia Southern and Florida Railroad, which first opened in 1890, the year after Adel was incorporated. The tracks ran from Florida to Macon, part of a rapidly growing network of railroads throughout the state that would be key to its economic recovery from the Civil War. By 1910, according to a historical marker in downtown Valdosta, some 30 miles south of Adel, the region was home to one of the largest cotton markets in the world. “The railroads were the life line that connected Valdosta to its market centers and led to the economic growth of the town,” it reads. The trains were a selling point for towns like Adel, advertised by a turn-of-the-century real estate broker as “the best little town in south Georgia, growing bigger and better every day.”
But for black residents of Cook County, it was a different story. The cotton industry had been built on the backs of their enslaved ancestors — and the railroads were built under brutal conditions using convict labor, which became plentiful as the state criminalized its black population following abolition. By the time Cook County (named after Confederate general Philip Cook) was founded in 1918, chain gangs were common, while the short-lived political representation of black Georgians gained during Reconstruction had come to an end.
The legacy of slavery is all around Adel. A historical marker in Hahira, some 10 miles south, commemorates “one of the deadliest waves of vigilantism in Georgia’s history” in 1918, when a notorious white landowner was allegedly killed by a man sent to work for him from the local jail. Eleven black residents were rounded up and lynched, including a woman who was eight months pregnant. The site where Union soldiers captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis, about 40 miles north of Adel, is home to a park, museum, and gift shop.
Today, Adel remains small and segregated, and the railroad tracks, now in the hands of the Norfolk Southern Railway, are the de facto divider between black and white residents. Officially designated as the City of Daylilies by Georgia lawmakers in 2006, the city website lauds Adel for preserving “its friendly atmosphere and small-town charm.” But the perception is not universally shared — especially where police are concerned. Black residents have long complained about harassment from cops in Adel. For those just passing through Cook County, it is hard to miss the police cars swarming I-75, bearing the names of myriad small cities and towns clustered in the area, each with its separate police force. And for strangers who come to town, perhaps to ask questions about old crimes, the reception from law enforcement can be downright hostile.
It was not long before the murder of Shailesh Patel was dramatically eclipsed by a third gruesome murder in Adel. Just seven months after Patel’s body was discovered on North Gordon Avenue, a beloved local grocer and his employee were beaten to death in broad daylight at a small store near the railroad tracks, just two miles away. The murder “horrified and revulsed the community,” the News Tribune reported on November 15, 2000, with a mugshot of the perpetrator on the front page: 20-year-old Hercules Brown.
It was a familiar name. In fact, for nearly two years, “Hercules Brown” had been whispered and muttered out loud — by callers to the newspaper, by gossiping teenagers at the car wash on 4th Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard, and by locals interviewed by the GBI. It was a name that came up in rumors, not only after the brutal killing of Shailesh Patel earlier that year, but also following the 1998 death of Donna Brown at the Taco Bell, where Hercules had worked for two years, often on the closing shift. As a different man sat in jail awaiting trial for that crime — swearing he was innocent — the brazen double murder in the fall of 2000 resurfaced old questions in Adel. Did police get the wrong man in 1998?
It is often said that the tragedy of wrongful convictions is not just what they mean for the innocents who lose their freedom, but also the threat they present to communities as a whole. When a person is imprisoned for a murder they did not commit, the real perpetrator is free to kill again. Among longtime residents of Adel, the period between the fall of 1998 and the fall of 2000 is a bad memory, a time when four people were violently murdered across a four-mile radius. Whether some of the murders could have been avoided is a question few seem willing to confront.
Almost 20 years later, Adel residents have moved on from that era in the town’s history. Yet the man convicted for the murder at the Taco Bell, Devonia Inman, has continued to proclaim his innocence while facing the prospect of dying in prison. Today, there is good reason to believe him, including compelling new evidence showing that police got it wrong. Many involved in the original case do not understand why Inman is still in prison. Others simply refuse to revisit it. From the Cook County Sheriff’s Department to the State Supreme Court, his pleas have proven futile. In Georgia, the truth will not set you free.
It was well after midnight on September 19, 1998 and 40-year-old Taco Bell manager Donna Brown was still trying to close for the night. It was only her third day on the job, and she was having a problem with the staff time cards. Employees working the closing shift usually left the restaurant together, but Brown told the two teenagers with her that night to go on home. Brown said she would call the Adel Police Department for an escort when she was ready to leave — a courtesy routinely extended to employees making late-night bank deposits. That evening, the Taco Bell’s deposit would be roughly $1,700.
Robin Carter and LarRisha Chapman, both students at Cook County High School, were working with Brown that night. Carter was picked up first; she remembered seeing Chapman pacing back and forth as she waited for her boyfriend to pick her up, which he eventually did shortly before 1 a.m. It was 1:52 a.m. when Brown finally clocked out.
A call came in to Adel police dispatch 12 minutes later. Customers at a nearby Huddle House restaurant had seen someone lying outside the adjacent Taco Bell, possibly passed out drunk. An employee called the cops. When police arrived on the scene, they found Donna Brown’s lifeless body in the middle of the otherwise empty parking lot. She was on her back; her employee uniform was intact — her white, short-sleeve collared shirt was tucked into pleated navy pants; a green chile-shaped nametag was still attached to her shirt — and her arms were splayed out to each side. Her head was cocked slightly to the left, her wavy hair matted from blood that had spread out across the asphalt. She had been shot once through her right eye with a bullet that police would later conclude had been fired by a .44 revolver.
A medical examiner would eventually testify that abrasions on Brown’s palms and left knee suggested she had fallen and tried to catch herself. Investigators would theorize that she had been killed by someone lying in wait, based on strands of vegetation found on her pants, which matched the weeds that ran along the parking lot curb. In one spot, those weeds were tamped down — a sign to the police that the killer had sprung from the bushes, surprising her before shooting her to death.
There had recently been a similar ambush at a fast food restaurant just over the interstate from the Taco Bell. Two Hardee’s employees were heading out after midnight on August 11, when a man in a ski mask emerged from the bushes next to the drive-thru window, pointing a pistol and demanding cash. But there was nothing to hand over — “we don’t take the money out at night anymore,” one of them told him. She and her co-worker drove straight to the police station, but officers lost the masked man as he ran off across a field.
If the murder of Donna Brown just one month later had any connection to the attempted robbery, police would never find out. Adel Police Officer Kevin Purvis was the first to arrive at the Taco Bell that night. He secured the area, putting crime tape around the scene. Then he waited. Later he would testify that, although there were people in the surrounding area at the time he found Brown’s body, he did not know who they were. He didn’t interview them to see if there was a possible witness. Nor did he find out who called 911. There was no police report; none of the Adel police officers at the crime scene that night documented their discoveries or recorded their actions. “We don’t usually do reports for murders,” Purvis explained. Everyone knew the case would be handed over to the GBI.
It was true that the GBI would take charge when a serious crime occurred in Adel. The agency had investigative resources far beyond that of rural police forces in South Georgia, some of which did not even have an investigator on staff. Although the Adel Police Department employed a full-time detective — a man named Jimmy Hill — the murder at Taco Bell would soon be led by GBI Agent Jamy Steinberg.
A thickset man with an imposing presence now in his mid-40s, Steinberg was a rookie when he was tasked with solving Brown’s murder. He had previously been a member of the South Georgia Drug Task Force, one of several narcotics units born of federal funding to fight the war on drugs. Tim Balch, the former Adel police officer who would later respond to the Patel murder scene, remembers Steinberg as methodical, a stickler for paperwork, and comically clumsy at times. “If there’s a court day, you’ll know it because he’ll spill something on his tie that day at lunch,” Balch recalled.
Steinberg arrived at the Taco Bell at 3:30 a.m. accompanied by members of the GBI crime scene unit. As the team began processing the murder scene, two things were immediately clear: The bank deposit was missing, as was Brown’s black 1995 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. The car was soon found in the parking lot of a long-shuttered Pizza Hut just over the interstate overpass. But neither the money nor the deposit bag was ever found — even though the Adel News Tribune would report, repeatedly, that the deposit bag had been recovered from the car.
There was plenty of physical evidence at the scene. Brown’s keys were wedged between the driver’s seat and the door; her purse was in the trunk. A pink bath towel was lying on the ground next to the car. Several finger and palm prints were lifted from the car, and investigators found tire tracks from a single vehicle leading into the parking lot, along with a shoe print near the abandoned car. Yet investigators somehow overlooked the key piece of evidence among these items, despite it being clearly visible in crime scene photos. Draped across the front passenger seat of the Monte Carlo was a makeshift ski mask, constructed from a length of gray sweatpants, with two eyeholes cut into it. The mask went undiscovered for approximately two weeks, until it was found in the car by Brown’s family.
That missed ski mask would be something of a harbinger for the investigation to come. The nearly 1,000-page GBI report on the murder of Donna Brown is thick but shallow, filled with leads never followed. Describing the GBI investigation to a jury years later, prosecutors claimed it was exhaustive: “They went down every path, they went down every road until they could exclude a person,” Assistant District Attorney Tim Eidson promised. But in fact, the opposite was true. After perfunctory efforts to match the finger and palm prints to several seemingly random people, the GBI quickly zeroed in on a single suspect who matched none of the physical evidence. With Adel Police Detective Jimmy Hill by his side, Steinberg turned to a 20-year-old who was new in town, with a recent history of run-ins with the police. His name was Devonia Inman.
Devonia Tyrone Inman was born on August 24, 1978, to Dinah Pickett and Eddie Lee Inman. He was delivered at home in a small house on Tomlinson Drive, just one mile southeast from where the Taco Bell would later stand. His father was in the military; when Inman was very young, his father’s post moved the family out of Georgia, leading them to Sacramento, California. His parents divorced when he was about 4 — Dinah would testify that her husband was abusive to her, including in front of their son. She remarried and stayed in California; Eddie Lee returned to Adel, eventually going to prison.
The move to California might have helped Inman avoid his father’s fate. As Inman’s aunt Ethel Pickett recalls, in her day, “when a black child graduated from high school, they went to the army. … They got out of Cook County, because if they hadn’t of got out of Cook County, they was going to jail.” Inman’s uncle, Ben Pickett, returned after a year deployed with the Marine Corps in Vietnam. “They didn’t have as many police then to really harass everybody,” he remembers about Adel in the 1970s. But like any segregated southern town, the law had a way of coming down hard on black folks. In 1982, Adel made national news after two white police officers fired their guns at a car carrying four black youth who were allegedly speeding. The car overturned, prompting calls from the NAACP for the cops to be fired.
By the time he was a teenager, Inman began getting in trouble in California. There was an arrest for armed robbery at 15, which landed him in juvenile hall, followed by an attempted robbery and car theft a couple years later. There was also a burgeoning pattern of domestic abuse. When Inman was 16, he was accused of choking and threatening to kill a girl he’d been dating for two weeks. Later, the family of a live-in girlfriend named Veronica filed several complaints against Inman, referring to him by his middle name. “Tyrone beats up Veronica all the time, but lately he has been getting much more violent,” her sister told police in 1997. An aunt described a phone call she overheard between her niece and Inman, who became enraged that her family was not letting her see him. “Fuck your aunt, fuck your grandma, fuck the law, I’m gonna get rid of them all,” he said.
Yet Inman also had a reputation for making empty threats, even among those who had been on the receiving end of his violent temper. “His bark is bigger than his bite,” said Marquetta Thomas, who met Inman when he returned to Adel in 1998. Her sister Christy Lima was dating Inman at the time of the murder at Taco Bell. He was violent toward her, Thomas said, but mostly he was a “pretty boy” who bullied girls because he wasn’t tough enough for real fights. For her part, Lima insisted that she was usually the one who got physical during fights with Inman, like the time she struck him in the face with a belt buckle. “Devonia probably hit me once, you know what I’m saying?”
There are different rumors for why Inman returned to Adel in the summer of 1998. One, still repeated among law enforcement, is that he was fleeing a murder rap in Sacramento. But according to his family, his mother simply thought he would stay away from trouble under the protection of his large extended family. That summer, the family was traveling South for a family reunion; before they returned to California, Dinah told Inman that she was going to leave him in Adel with his grandmother. He was angry, but his mother made it clear he did not have a choice.
It did not take long for Adel cops to remember the newly returned Inman. His relatives had deep roots in town, and his father had only recently gone to prison. Besides, Inman had already had his own run-in with the local law, after fathering a child with a girl during a visit to Adel in 1995. Inman showed up at the hospital that December, apparently against the mother’s wishes. “I just didn’t want him in there,” she later testified, denying she was afraid of him. “I just wanted him to leave.” But her mother and the nurses took out a warrant on Inman. Cook County prosecutor Bob Ellis charged him with terroristic threats and acts. He received 10 years’ probation, which he promptly violated by returning home to California. Breaking the terms of his probation would later come back to haunt Inman.
It’s unclear why investigators first set their sights on Inman for the murder of Donna Brown. The GBI report shows that his name was first provided by a man named Zachary Payne, a sometime drug dealer in his early 30s, who had once lived near Inman’s aunt. On the evening of September 20 — just over 24 hours after the murder — Jamy Steinberg went to see Payne in the trailer park where he lived. The one-page summary of the meeting is short on details, but it says that Inman had recently come to Payne’s door to harass him with a couple of friends. Payne suggested that Inman was mad because Payne “knew” Inman’s girlfriend, Christy Lima. But whatever their original beef, it was clearly far less important than what Payne claimed to have seen Inman carrying: a gun pulled from his waistband and pointed in Payne’s direction. There was little else beyond that. Payne had no specific information about the murder at the Taco Bell, but “believes Inman would be very capable of committing this crime,” according to the GBI report.
On September 22, Steinberg and Hill went to see Inman’s girlfriend Lima at the home she shared with her sister, Marquetta Thomas. According to the GBI report, Lima said that Inman had a bad temper, but she had never had problems with him. She said that he had once hidden a revolver “between the mattress and box springs in her bedroom,” but she hadn’t seen it since. Perhaps most importantly, she said Inman had been with her the night Donna Brown was killed. A third person, Victoria Allen, also said Inman had been at the house all night, except for a brief time when he left around 11 p.m., and that she did not think he was capable of committing the crime.
But Thomas told a very different story. Thomas told Steinberg and Hill that Inman had recently talked about “jacking and robbing” places in order to get enough money to “come up” in the Adel drug trade. He’d tried to involve her in his robbery plots, she said, but she declined. And she said Inman was not home the night of Brown’s murder — and that her sister would probably lie to protect him.
The next day, Jimmy Hill went to see Inman at the Adel jail. Conveniently, he had been picked up on a warrant for violating probation in connection with the incident at the local hospital several years earlier. Inman reluctantly admitted that he’d briefly possessed a gray .38 snub-nosed revolver that he’d found in his uncle’s closet. And he said that he’d been at Lima’s house all night on the night of the murder.
But police didn’t believe him. Investigators began re-interviewing individuals they had spoken to before. A big break came almost immediately, when 16-year-old LarRisha Chapman met again with Steinberg on September 24. Chapman had originally told him that nothing out of the ordinary had happened at the Taco Bell on the night of the murder. But now she had a new story to tell. Waiting outside the Taco Bell for her boyfriend, she said, she did see something — or rather, she heard something: While sitting on the curb tying her shoe, she was startled to hear Inman’s voice coming from the weeds. The person had a “bald head and a white tank top,” she said. She told Steinberg that she had been too scared to say anything earlier.
From there, the evidence against Inman began to stack up. A little over a month after the crime, a white woman named Virginia Tatem, a newspaper carrier, came forward with a damning account. On the night of the murder, she said she was under an awning outside the Howard Johnson’s just up the block from the abandoned Pizza Hut — the place where Brown’s car would later be found. It was around 2 a.m. and she was waiting for the papers to be brought up from Valdosta, when she heard what might have been a gunshot coming from the direction of the Taco Bell on the other side of the interstate. Shortly after that, she said, two cars came roaring across the overpass: the first, being driven by a black man wearing a gold chain, was a black two-door that matched the description of Brown’s Monte Carlo and going so fast that it fishtailed as it made the corner in front of her. Following close behind was a second car carrying at least two other black men and one black woman. They drove down the dark road that led to the Pizza Hut parking lot and disappeared. Steinberg showed Tatem a photo lineup, where she identified the driver of the first car. “Oh my God, that’s the one,” she said, according to the GBI report, covering her mouth and pointing at a picture of Inman.
The witness who would clinch the case against Inman came forward early in the new year. In January 1999, a man named Kwame Spaulding contacted the GBI from a jail in Valdosta, where he was being held on cocaine charges. Spaulding had been locked up with Inman, who remained in jail after being arrested on the probation violation. According to Spaulding, Inman had confessed to killing Brown, telling him he’d done the job with his girlfriend’s sister — presumably, Marquetta Thomas — and that the two had waited in the weeds for Brown to emerge. Then Inman shot her with a .44 caliber gun and the two had split the proceeds of the crime, leaving the deposit bag in Brown’s car. Spaulding asked if his jail time might be reduced for having provided this critical information. Steinberg said he would see about it.
On January 11, 1999, Inman was indicted for Donna Brown’s murder. His trial would not take place until 2001. In the meantime, elected District Attorney Bob Ellis announced he would seek the death penalty.
Inman’s relatives expressed disbelief. Ben Pickett recalls contacting Adel Police Chief Kirk Gordon and telling him repeatedly that the police had rushed to judgment, that word around town was that someone else had committed the crime. “I said, ‘You need to put the mens out on the street and find out what’s going on,’” he said, but was told, “No, we got our man.” Pickett answered, “Chief, you got the wrong man.”
For all the circumstantial evidence pointing to Inman, there were reasons to think that his uncle was right. For one, Marquetta Thomas, whose story was so dramatically different from that of her roommates, had numerous potential reasons to lie. There was the fact that Inman mistreated her sister, which made Thomas hate him and gave her a motive to implicate him. More inconvenient for the GBI’s investigation, numerous people said Thomas — who would eventually be sent to prison for acting as a getaway driver in an unrelated armed robbery — had bragged that she herself was involved in Brown’s murder. She even fit the description of the woman in the second car that Tatem allegedly saw that night. Yet there is little indication in the GBI report that Steinberg investigated Thomas’s potential link to the crime.
Tatem’s story was also questionable. It was highly unlikely that she would have been able to see and hear everything she claimed from the spot where she stood that night. She had also waited more than a month to come forward — only after a $5,000 reward for information in the case had been published in the Adel News Tribune.
Finally, there were problems with Spaulding’s story. Like any jailhouse snitch, it was clear he sought to trade information to help himself, regardless of how accurate it was. But more importantly, many of the details he offered had been published in the newspaper by the time he came forward — including the erroneous detail about the deposit bag being left in Brown’s car. Spaulding also said that Inman had shot Brown with a .44 — a detail prosecutors would later say was never made public, convincing Steinberg that Spaulding was telling the truth. But that detail, too, had repeatedly appeared in the paper.
But the most significant reason to doubt the case against Inman was the GBI’s failure to pursue alternative suspects, central among them, Hercules Brown. In a brief interview with Steinberg, who had secured a list of all current and former Taco Bell employees, Hercules was asked questions that might implicate other people in the case, for example, whether Hercules knew of any trouble Donna Brown might have had with a boyfriend. Not surprisingly, Hercules said no.
Hercules, then a high school senior, worked at the Taco Bell for two years, often on the closing shift with LarRisha Chapman. He was not at work the night of the murder, allegedly because he was either at home or had been on a school band trip that evening. Yet numerous people came forward with information pointing toward Hercules. Though some of the information is included in the GBI report, there is no indication that Steinberg or Hill ever acted on any of the tips.
One man told investigators that his brother said Hercules had admitted that the crime was an inside job and that LarRisha Chapman was supposed to help him rob the store that night but that she’d chickened out. A second man also told police that he knew who did it — that the man had confessed to him that he’d used a .44 and that he’d worn a ski mask because Donna Brown knew who he was. The man would later say that the story had come from Hercules, while the two of them were talking at a local car wash.
Finally, Takeisha Pickett, Inman’s cousin, said she told Steinberg that before she quit her job at Taco Bell in July 1998, on two separate occasions, Hercules had asked whether she would join him in a plot to rob the store. Pickett turned him down. While Pickett is adamant that she gave Steinberg that information just two weeks after Donna Brown’s murder, it is not included in his report.
If Steinberg had followed up on these leads, there is a good chance that at least two, if not three, additional murders in Adel, Georgia, could have been prevented.