Two state Supreme Court justices on Thursday issued extraordinary opinions in which they openly questioned the imprisonment of a man convicted of the armed robbery and murder of a South Georgia woman 21 years ago.
Chief Justice Harold Melton and Presiding Justice David Nahmias both urged the state attorney general's office to re-open the case against Devonia Inman. Inman is serving a life-without-parole sentence, even though DNA evidence discovered years after his trial strongly suggested another man committed the crimes.
Nahmias, the former U.S. attorney in Atlanta, went so far as to question whether the state should continue opposing Inman’s efforts to obtain a new trial.
“Let justice be done,” Nahmias wrote.
Attorney General Chris Carr agreed to follow the justices’ recommendations.
“The Attorney General and members of our senior staff take very seriously the court’s concerns, and are personally and fully reviewing the matter in conjunction with the district attorney who would be responsible for any prosecution arising out of this case,” office spokeswoman Katie Byrd said.
[SPECIAL INVESTIGATION: Georgia man serves life despite DNA implicating another killer]
“We were very gratified to see the Supreme Court’s order, especially the forceful and courageous concurring opinions of Chief Justice Melton and Presiding Justice Nahmias,” Inman’s legal team from Troutman Sanders said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing the fight for justice for Mr. Inman.”
Inman, who has long proclaimed his innocence, was convicted of the 1998 murder of Donna Brown, a night manager of a Taco Bell in Adel. She was accosted in the parking lot after closing up and died of a gunshot wound to her face. Her killer took more than $1,700 of the day’s receipts.
Inman's case was chronicled in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's podcast "Breakdown: Murder Below the Gnat Line." He is now being represented for free by Troutman Sanders lawyers who are trying to win him a new trial.
“Everyone involved in our criminal justice system should dread the conviction and incarceration of innocent people,” Nahmias wrote.
As a justice, Nahmias said, he has reviewed more than 1,500 murder cases. In some, judges and appellate courts granted new trials to defendants who appeared not to be guilty, he said.
“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,” Nahmias wrote.
If Inman were given a new trial, there’s no telling what the result would be, Nahmias added. But with the new evidence that’s been uncovered, “there is no doubt that a new trial would be very different than the one in which Inman was found guilty.”
Writing separately, Melton said he shared many of Nahmias’ concerns.
“The evidence that potentially connects a different person other than Inman to the murder in this case raises some very troubling issues,” he said.
During the 2001 trial, prosecutors presented no physical evidence that tied Inman to the crime. Jurors heard from a jailhouse informant who said Inman told him he killed Brown, but the inmate later said he was coerced into turning on Inman. Prosecutors also called upon a friend of Inman's who initially said she saw Inman with a lot of cash the morning after the killing. But she also recanted.
A witness who did not retract her testimony was a newspaper delivery woman who said she saw Inman driving Brown’s car shortly after the shooting. But a man standing next to her at that time has said it was too dark for her to have identified Inman.
Inman’s lawyers tried to call on witnesses who said another man, Hercules Brown, told them he committed the murder. (Hercules Brown is not related to the victim.) But Superior Court Judge Buster McConnell did not let the jury hear their testimony.
Years later, DNA testing was conducted to see who might have been wearing a homemade mask found inside Donna Brown’s car. The GBI crime lab matched the DNA on the mask to Hercules Brown.
At that time, Brown was in prison serving his own life-without-parole sentence, having pleaded guilty to the murder of two people during another armed robbery in Adel.
With the new DNA evidence, Inman’s lawyers asked McConnell to grant a new trial. But McConnell let the conviction stand.
In 2014, the Georgia Supreme Court declined to even consider Inman’s appeal of McConnell’s decision.
Last year, Inman's new lawyers filed a new petition before Superior Court Judge Kristina Cook Graham. In July, Graham declined to dismiss the case and ruled that Inman's lawyers could question Hercules Brown.
But the state attorney general’s office sought to overturn Graham’s ruling.
On Thursday, the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously rejected the state’s request, and its order included the two concurring opinions by Melton and Nahmias.
Nahmias wrote that he now has “grave doubts” about McConnell’s decision to deny Inman’s motion for a new trial. He also said he regrets the Supreme Court’s decision in 2014 not to hear Inman’s appeal.
“Unfortunately, I have not found a way, within the confines of the law, for us to undo our decision … at this point,” Nahmias said. “But this court is not the only source of justice in this state. Indeed, judges are often obligated to enforce procedural rules, and we often must defer to discretionary decisions made by prosecutors. Prosecutors, however, may always exercise their discretion to seek justice — to do the right thing.”
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