Devonia Inman, sentenced to life in a capital murder trial in which Georgia prosecutors hid exculpatory evidence, has been exonerated 23 years after his wrongful conviction.

On December 20, 2021, one month after Judge Kristina Cook Graham granted Inman a new trial based on evidence that the prosecution had unconstitutionally suppressed multiple police records and physical evidence that another man had committed the killing, the Alapaha Judicial Circuit District Attorney Chase L. Studstill moved to dismiss all charges against Inman. Alapaha Circuit Superior Court Chief Judge Clayton Tomlinson granted the motion, exonerating Inman and ordering his immediate release.

Inman spoke to reporters outside the Augusta State Medical Prison following his release. “I’m happy,” he said. “It’s been a long time.”

“For 23 years, I’ve felt like my life was on hold,” his mother, Dinah Ray said. “I can breathe now.”

“At least 186 people who were wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in the United States have been exonerated since 1973. But those numbers are just the tip of the iceberg of the wrongful use of the death penalty in this country,” Death Penalty Information Center executive director Robert Dunham said. “Devonia Inman is one of more than 70 people to be exonerated in just the last five years in wrongful murder prosecutions in which district attorneys had sought the death penalty or cases in which police or prosecutors had threatened defendants or witnesses with the death penalty to coerce their cooperation in wrongful prosecutions.”

Inman was convicted in a death-penalty trial in 2001 for the September 19, 1998 robbery and murder of the manager of a Taco Bell in Adel, Georgia in the restaurant parking lot. No physical evidence linked him to the crime, although a distinctive homemade ski mask that the prosecution said belonged to the killer was recovered from the victim’s stolen car. Later DNA testing on the mask identified the killer as Hercules Brown, a former employee at the Taco Bell.

The prosecution presented four key witnesses against Inman, three of whom subsequently recanted their testimony, saying they had been pressured or coerced by police. They included an alleged jailhouse informant who provided false testimony that Inman had confessed to the murder, and a woman described in press reports as a friend of Inman’s who claimed to have seen Inman with a lot of cash the morning after the Taco Bell robbery. A fourth witness, who received a $5,000 payment for her testimony, claimed to have seen Inman driving the victim’s car. However, a man who was next to her at the time testified it had been too dark for anyone to have identified the driver.

Several witnesses had told the defense that Brown had admitted to having committed the murder. However, when Inman’s lawyers attempted to present them at trial, judge Buster McConnell barred them from testifying. With the ski mask in its possession and aware that Inman was arguing at trial that Brown was the killer, prosecutors withheld from the defense evidence that police had found another homemade ski mask in Brown’s car when he was arrested on drug and weapons charges outside an Adel supermarket in September 2000. Brown also was arrested for, and pleaded guilty to, the murders of two other people during another armed robbery in an Adel grocery store months after the Taco Bell killing.

Having successfully hidden this evidence, District Attorney Bob Ellis — later sentenced to federal prison after lying to the FBI over whether he coerced a woman facing criminal charges to engage in sexual acts with him — then told the jury there was not “one scintilla of evidence” that Brown was involved in the murder.

The evidence that Brown had been apprehended with a similar mask, Graham wrote, “would have been independent, reliable and admissible evidence tending to connect Hercules Brown to the murder, corroborating the defense’s theory of mistaken identity,” Graham wrote. The prosecution’s misconduct, she ruled, “demonstrates the fundamental unfairness of Mr. Inman’s trial, undermines the Court’s confidence in the outcome of the trial and related conviction, and justifies granting habeas corpus relief.”

The Roadblocks to Exoneration

Christina Cribbs, Senior Attorney from Georgia Innocence Project, sharply criticized the systemic roadblocks that delayed Inman’s exoneration. “Despite so much compelling information showing that the State convicted the wrong man, it took a massive team effort that spanned almost a decade to correct this obvious injustice and free an innocent man from prison,” she said. “It simply cannot and should not take so long for the State to correct wrongful and unjust convictions in Georgia.”

Prosecutors and the courts repeatedly delayed Inman’s exoneration despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence. Although DNA testing by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in 2011 excluded Inman and implicated Brown, prosecutors opposed and Judge McConnell denied Inman’s petition for a new trial. Then, in 2014, the Georgia Supreme Court refused to hear Inman’s appeal.

In 2018, in front of a new judge, the Georgia Innocence Project and the Atlanta-based law firm Troutman Pepper filed a new habeas corpus petition alleging that Inman was actually innocent. The Georgia attorney general’s office opposed Inman’s petition and moved to dismiss it. When the trial court denied its motion to dismiss the petition, state prosecutors then filed an interlocutory appeal to try to prevent Inman from presenting his evidence to the court. The Georgia Supreme Court upheld the trial court’s ruling, and in a remarkable set of concurring opinions, two justices urged the Georgia attorney general’s office to end its opposition to granting Inman a new trial.

Chief Justice Harold Melton wrote that the evidence connecting Brown to the murder “raises some very troubling issues” and urged the attorney general to “closely re-examine this case in order to ensure that justice is truly being served.”

Justice David E. Nahmias wrote: “ Everyone involved in our criminal justice system should dread the conviction and incarceration of innocent people. During my decade of service on this Court, I have reviewed over 1,500 murder cases in various forms. In those cases, trial courts, habeas courts, and this Court through appellate review have occasionally granted new trials to defendants who appeared not to be guilty of crimes of which they were convicted. Of the multitude of cases in which a new trial has been denied, Inman’s case is the one that causes me the most concern that an innocent person remains convicted and sentenced to serve the rest of his life in prison.

“This is, in short, a case that the Attorney General and his senior staff should review — should personally and fully review – before it goes much further. The Attorney General should decide whether it is really in the interest of justice for the State of Georgia to continue fighting to block discovery regarding Inman’s claims and asserting procedural defenses to prevent a hearing on the merits of those claims — and indeed whether the State should continue resisting Inman’s efforts to obtain a new trial. No one can say for sure what the result of a new trial would be, but with the new evidence that has been uncovered since Inman’s original trial — including but not limited to the DNA of Hercules Brown, and not of Devonia Inman, on the homemade mask found in the murder victim’s stolen car — there is no doubt that a new trial would be very different than the one in which Inman was found guilty.

“Let justice be done.”

Nonetheless, on remand, the attorney general’s office continued to oppose Inman’s petition for relief and waited the full thirty-day appeal period before announcing it would not challenge the trial court’s grant of relief. With the case returned to local prosecutors, the Alapaha Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s office moved to dismiss the charges against Inman, ending his 23-year odyssey through the Georgia judicial system.


Bill Rankin, Devonia Inman freed after 23 years in prison for wrong­ful con­vic­tion, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 20, 2021; Devonia Inman Exonerated After 23 Years of Wrongful Imprisonment, Georgia Innocence Project, December 20, 2021; Devonia Inman, Georgia Innocence Project, December 20, 2021; Murder case is dis­missed, Georgia man is freed from prison, Associated Press, December 21, 2021; Jessica Szilagyi, Georgia Man Exonerated After Spending 23 Years In Prison For A Murder He Didn’t Commit, The Georgia Virtue, December 21, 2021; Bill Rankin, EXCLUSIVE: Devonia Inman, behind bars for 23 years, was wrong­ful­ly con­vict­ed, judge says, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 19, 2021; Bill Rankin, Georgia Supreme Court jus­tices ques­tion impris­oned man’s con­vic­tion, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 192019.

Read the Georgia Supreme Court’s order and con­cur­ring opin­ions in Sprayberry v. Inman, No. S20I0038 (Ga. Sept. 192019).

Photos by the Georgia Innocence Project