Mimesis Law
12 May 2021

Devonia Inman: Will A Technicality Keep An Innocent Man In Prison For Life?

Mar. 8, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — Two things are true.

  1. Devonia Inman is serving a life without parole sentence since 2001 for allegedly killing Donna Brown in 1998.
  2. He probably had nothing to do with it.

Inman was tried for killing Donna Brown, a manager at Taco Bell, in a parking lot outside her work. Then, he allegedly took her car and $1,700, and drove her car into a chain link fence. The evidence against him wasn’t too shabby, either.

There was:

  1. The testimony of an employee at Taco Bell, who swore that she heard Inman’s voice ring ominously from some bushes (although at trial she recanted).
  2. A newspaper delivery driver, who distinctly saw Inman drive past her at 12:30 at night in the stolen car, fishtailing as he went.
  3. Inman’s cell mate at the jail, who heard him confess and give a lot of specific details about the crime.

And this would all be pretty persuasive stuff to keep him in prison for the rest of his life if not for the inconvenient fact that a ski-mask, found in Donna Brown’s abandoned car, was full of the DNA of a guy named Hercules Brown.

And it’s not like Hercules Brown’s involvement in the case was new. Inman’s defense at trial had been that Hercules had been the one to shoot and kill Donna Brown because he told a lifelong friend he had committed the crime, admitted it to another person while smoking weed, and had asked another employee at Taco Bell for help robbing the place.

Naturally, Hercules was not about to come to court and testify to all this. Instead, if called, he would take the 5th, making him unavailable for examination. And without Hercules to testify, his statements would be hearsay and inadmissible in court.[1]  So, the defendant wanted to bring in his statement using the “exceptional circumstances test.”

And here, even though the confession was heard by three people, the judge just plain didn’t feel like letting the stuff in. He was particularly troubled that one of the men Hercules had confessed to failed to admit his culpability in a crime for which he’d been convicted. The judge just couldn’t believe someone who wouldn’t “come clean.” And the Supreme Court of Georgia backed him up.

A trial attorney might ask: “what about statements against interest?” Well, in Georgia, the rule until 2013 was that statements against interest that made the defendant seem guilty were automatically admissible, while statements that made him appear innocent had to run through a bunch of hoops that were at least as onerous as those for the exceptional circumstances test.

So let’s summarize the rule on confessions for a moment. If a defendant confesses to a friend that he’s committed a crime, that’s more or less automatically admissible. The defendant said it, so it’s reliable. If someone other than the defendant gets published in the New York Times admitting to the crime, it’s up to the judge whether that’s reliable enough to go back to the jury. It’s no surprise that under a set of rules like that, the jury never got to learn that someone else had confessed to the crime for which Inman stood accused.

Naturally, now that Inman has been in prison for a while, much of the case has fallen apart. The newspaper delivery driver? Someone in the car with her on the night of the murder said they didn’t see anything, and she just reported what she did for the reward money, a full month after the incident.

The cell mate? Now willing to say that investigators pressured him to say what he did and fed him details to make it believable. And, of course, the Taco Bell employee had already changed her story by the time of trial.

One might expect, based on all this, that when Fault Line’s own Jessica Gabel Cino and the Innocence Project asked for a new trial on the basis of newly discovered DNA evidence, they got it.

Well actually, no. The trial court denied it. And the Supreme Court of Georgia denied cert without explanation. Which actually kind of makes sense, given that Georgia won’t grant a new trial on the basis of DNA evidence if there was any possibility that trial counsel could have had the evidence tested.

So how did we get here, exactly? The entire purpose of the jury trial system is that it is supposed to accurately and fairly determine whether someone has committed a crime without encouraging bad behavior from the government. Hell, it’s written into our laws:

The object of all legal investigation is the discovery of truth. Rules of evidence shall be construed to secure fairness in administration, eliminate unjustifiable expense and delay, and promote the growth and development of the law of evidence to the end that the truth may be ascertained and proceedings justly determined.

But here, Inman ran headlong into one rule of evidence explicitly designed to hurt defendants, and now faces an increasingly impossible set of hurdles to bring his DNA evidence before a court that will hear it.

In theory, the Due Process clause protects people like Inman when things like this happen. There is a whole series of Supreme Court cases that hold that rules of evidence can’t arbitrarily keep out evidence of actual innocence. And if Inman’s appeal had come just a bit later, he might have had more luck citing Holmes v. South Carolina, a case that struck down a rule prohibiting defendants from presenting evidence that someone else committed the crime when there was strong forensic evidence to convict the other person.

But if it wasn’t for bad luck, Inman would have no luck at all. And now he may spend the rest of his life in prison. Not because he committed this crime. But because he was innocent in ways, and at times, that our legal system wasn’t prepared to recognize.

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