Author Archives: Liliana Segura

A Small Town Rocked by a Series of Violent Murders

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.

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Hercules Brown.

Photo: Georgia Department of Corrections

What Happened to Hercules

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.”

The Taco Bell in Adel, GA. Devonia Inman was convicted of a murder that happened in the parking lot of this Taco Bell in 1998.

The Taco Bell in Adel, Ga., photographed in July 2017.

Photo: Ryan Christopher Jones for The Intercept

A Witness Recants

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.”

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The tamped-down grass where Chapman alleged that Inman was waiting, outside the Taco Bell.

Photo: GBI

“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.

A photo of Devonia Inman and Christy at the home of Dave and Dinah Ray in Sacramento, CA.

A photo of Devonia Inman and Christy Lima at the home of Dave and Dinah Ray in Sacramento, Calif.

Photo: Ryan Christopher Jones for The Intercept

The Trial

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.

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A photo of the crime scene, marking where Donna Brown’s body had been found.

Photo: GBI

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.

The view from where Virginia Tatem and Lee Grimes were standing when Virginia claims to have heard the gunshot at  Taco Bell and see Devonia's car go into an abandoned Pizza Hut parking lot. Looking northwest.

The view from the spot where Virginia Tatem and Lee Grimes were standing when Virginia claims to have heard the gunshot at Taco Bell and seen Devonia’s car go into an abandoned Pizza Hut parking lot.

Photo: Ryan Christopher Jones for The Intercept

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.

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Donna Brown’s abandoned car in the Pizza Hut parking lot.

Photo: GBI

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.”

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The post A Small Town Rocked by a Series of Violent Murders appeared first on The Intercept.

Who Killed Donna Brown?

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?”

An Adel water tower seen from the Cook County Courthouse.

An Adel water tower, seen from the Cook County Courthouse.

Photo: 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.”

A McDonald's in Adel, GA.

A McDonald’s in Adel, Ga.

Photo: Ryan Christopher Jones for The Intercept

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.

Train tracks in Adel, GA seen through the reflection of a business window.

Train tracks in Adel, Ga., seen through the reflection of a business window.

Photo: Ryan Christopher Jones for The Intercept

Another Killing

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.

The Taco Bell in Adel, GA. Devonia Inman was convicted of a murder that happened in the parking lot of this Taco Bell in 1998.

The Taco Bell in Adel, Ga., in July 2017.

Photo: Ryan Christopher Jones for The Intercept

The Taco Bell Murder

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.

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A photo of Donna Brown’s hand at the crime scene.

Photo: GBI

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.

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A photo of the crime scene.

Photo: 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.

Old family photos at Dave and Dinah Ray's house in Sacramento. The top photo is of Devonia Inman.

Family photos on display at Dave and Dinah Ray’s home in Sacramento, Calif., including Devonia Inman at the top.

Photo: Ryan Christopher Jones for The Intercept

A Troubled Teen

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.

Marquetta Thomas at her home in Baldwin, GA. in 1998, Mrs. Thomas told investigators that Devonia Inman committed a murder at the Taco Bell in Adel, GA, but then recanted at trial.

Marquetta Thomas at her home in Baldwin, Ga. Thomas told investigators in 1998 that Devonia Inman committed a murder at the Taco Bell in Adel, but recanted at trial.

Photo: Ryan Christopher Jones for The Intercept

Case Closed

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.

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A diagram of the Taco Bell parking lot, featuring measurements from key points in the crime scene.

Image: GBI

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.”

A recent photo of Devonia Inman while in prison.

A recent photo of Devonia Inman while in prison.

Photo: Ryan Christopher Jones for The Intercept

Unreliable Witnesses

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.

The post Who Killed Donna Brown? appeared first on The Intercept.

His Conviction Was Overturned. Why Is Arizona Doing Everything in Its Power to Keep Barry Jones on Death Row?

Elishia Sloan was 15 years old when her mother’s ex-boyfriend went to death row for a crime he swore he didn’t commit. It was 1995; Barry Lee Jones was convicted of raping and murdering a 4-year-old girl at the Desert Vista trailer park in Tucson, Arizona. Sloan had previously lived there with Jones and her mom, Joyce Richmond, who went by Rose at the time. The couple was hooked on drugs — all the adults at the trailer park seemed to be. But Sloan trusted Jones, who was like a father to her. “It’s weird, because usually as a pre-teen, you’re like, ‘You’re not my dad,’” she recalled. “But it wasn’t like that.” She did not believe Jones had killed that little girl.

Jones wrote letters to Sloan and her mother while awaiting trial in the Pima County Jail. He tried to be upbeat, using envelopes illustrated with cartoons. But after he was found guilty and sentenced to die, Sloan and her mom eventually fell out of touch with him. Sloan married a boy from the trailer park, later divorcing him, and settled with her mom in Montana. Richmond got clean while Sloan worked on raising her three kids. As the years passed, they would periodically look for information about Jones’s status on the website of the Arizona Department of Corrections. “It’s a scary feeling, looking at that page,” Sloan said. “But thank God it always said ‘Active.’”

Sloan and Richmond moved back to Tucson last year. Early last month, Sloan Googled Jones’s name and found the series of articles on his case published at The Intercept. They laid out the myriad problems behind Jones’s conviction: tunnel vision and sloppy police work by the Pima County Sheriff’s Department; unreliable evidence, from dubious eyewitness testimony to junk science; and a medical examiner who appeared to have shifted his conclusions to support the state’s case.

Elishia Sloan at Picture Rock Park on Oct. 28 in Tucson, Ariz. (Caitlin O'Hara for The Intercept)

Elishia Sloan, photographed on Oct. 28, 2018, in Tucson, Ariz.

When Sloan got to the third story in the series, she called out to her mother, who was in another room. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, they overturned his conviction.’” Sloan sought out Jones’s legal team and spoke to Andrew Sowards, an investigator with the Arizona Federal Public Defender’s Office in Tucson. As it happened, he said, Jones was due in court the next day, October 12.

It was a gray, rainy morning as Sloan and her mother drove their black Ford truck to the U.S. District Court downtown and went up to the sixth floor. Richmond, 68, wore jeans, a coral top, and a gold chain. Sloan, 38, wore a shirt that said “Rock ’n’ Roll Forever.” At 9:20 a.m., Jones was escorted into the courtroom and seated just a few feet in front of them. He wore orange prison garb and looked almost unrecognizable, his remaining hair thin and gray. U.S. marshals walked in and out of the courtroom as Sloan and Richmond tried to follow the back and forth between the attorneys and U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess.

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U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess.

Photo: U.S. Court for the 9th Circuit

It was Burgess who had overturned Jones’s conviction, after presiding over an evidentiary hearing that exposed fatal flaws in the case. In his July 31 order, Burgess said Arizona prosecutors had to either retry Jones or release him, within a strict timeframe. But the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, which has spent years fighting to keep Jones on death row, filed a notice of appeal before the 9th Circuit Court to reverse the order and reinstate Jones’s conviction. Prosecutors also sought a stay from Burgess to waive the fast-approaching deadline to retry Jones. “We could be up in the 9th Circuit for a long time,” Jones’s attorney, Assistant Federal Public Defender Cary Sandman, told me. In the meantime, Jones would remain in prison.

Speaking before the court on October 12, Sandman pushed back on the state’s request for a stay. “The fact of the matter is that Mr. Jones has spent nearly 24 years on death row on a premise that’s completely faulty,” he said. That premise was that Jones had fatally assaulted the victim the day before she died. “And we now know there’s no reliable medical evidence to support that,” he said.

“When did it happen? Who did it?” Sandman went on. “We’re left now with no answers to those questions.” He added, “The time has arrived for him to get a fair trial.”

At around 10:30 a.m., Burgess declared a 20-minute recess and said he would hand down his decision when he returned. There was a quiet stir in the courtroom — federal judges rarely rule from the bench. When Burgess returned, he put on his glasses and read his decision aloud. The state’s motion for a stay was denied, he said. Prosecutors would have to move forward with a retrial, to begin by March 13, 2019. Jones was quickly whisked from the courtroom.

At a nearby McDonald’s afterward, Sloan and her mother processed what had happened. It was hard for Richmond to comprehend why the state insisted on fighting Jones’s release. “How do they sleep at night?” she asked. “They think he’s guilty,” her daughter replied. Neither of them believed it was true. In a 2002 affidavit filed by Jones’s legal team, Sloan wrote, “Barry would never hurt a child, especially not sexually. In fact, Barry was the one who always tried to protect the girls in the park from all the perverts who lived there.”

Sloan and her mother could think of plenty of other people in the trailer park who might have hurt that little girl. “If [detectives] had investigated right, they could have investigated everybody,” Richmond said. “There was a lot of weird men there. I’d be the first to admit that. They had just as much opportunity to do anything as anybody else.”

For a brief moment over the summer, it seemed possible the state of Arizona would be open to some kind of mutual resolution in Jones’s case. The Pima County Conviction Integrity Unit — an office founded in 2015 to review questionable convictions — had signaled it was open to examining it. In an August email, Supervising Deputy County Attorney Rick Unklesbay, who is in charge of the CIU, told me that “once the case comes back to this office we will be reviewing it.” But he backtracked in a more recent email, writing that “it’s a bit premature to have a discussion about where the case is going.”

The notion that the state must not be too hasty carries a cruel irony for Jones. At 60, he has spent much of his adult life on death row, struggling with depression and thoughts of suicide. After his conviction was overturned, “there was a sense of relief in Barry’s voice I’ve never heard,” Sowards told me. Sandman hoped to secure Jones’s release pending the appeal; Jones’s older brother, Otis, an Army veteran retired from law enforcement, signed an affidavit offering to let Jones stay at his home south of Tucson. But prosecutors cast Jones as a danger to the public, warning in filings that “any release from custody will be brief,” since Pima County law enforcement would be poised to re-arrest him in advance of a retrial.

If it was hard to imagine how the state could retry Jones given the dismantling of its case, a retrial nevertheless seemed to be on the horizon after Burgess’s October 12 ruling. Jones was appointed a trial attorney and a hearing was scheduled in Pima County Criminal Court. But on the eve of the hearing, his future was thrown into doubt once again. The state had asked the 9th Circuit to grant the stay denied by Burgess — the hearing was canceled. A week later, the 9th Circuit ruled for the state. It ordered that the appeal proceed as quickly as possible. Rather than allow its case against Jones to withstand the scrutiny of a new trial — and rather than face the likelihood of an acquittal — the attorney general’s office is determined to undo Burgess’s order overturning Jones’s conviction.

For Jones, the setback was compounded by his temporary transfer to Pima County Jail. According to Sandman, prison officials did not send any of the medication Jones takes for anxiety and depression. It was “very traumatic,” Sandman told me. Jones is faring better now, back among his old neighbors at the maximum-security prison in Florence, Sandman said, where Burgess’s order has made the rounds on death row. “It helps quite a bit that most people recognize he shouldn’t be there.”

It has now been more than a year since the evidentiary hearing in Jones’s case. Seven days of testimony in the fall of 2017 revealed how badly the Pima County Sheriff’s Department had botched the investigation into the death of 4-year-old Rachel Gray. The child’s lifeless body was carried into the hospital by her mother, Angela Gray, shortly after 6 a.m. on May 2, 1994. Angela, Jones’s then-girlfriend, had been living with Jones in his trailer along with her three children; it was Jones who dropped her off with Rachel at the hospital, then came under suspicion when he did not return.

In an aggressive interrogation later that day, Sheriff’s Detective Sonia Pesqueira accused Jones of killing Rachel, although it was not at all clear yet how she had died. Pesqueira never investigated the timing of Rachel’s fatal injury — a tear in her duodenum, part of her small intestine, caused by some sort of blow to her stomach. At the evidentiary hearing, it became clear that Pesqueira merely assumed the injury had occurred the day before Rachel died and tailored her investigation accordingly. But medical experts reiterated what they have said for years: that the injury could not have occurred in the window presented by the state.

To prevail at the evidentiary hearing, Jones’s attorneys had to show that his trial lawyers had provided ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of his Sixth Amendment rights. Burgess found that they had proved their case. In his 91-page order overturning the conviction, Burgess concluded that if not for the failures of Jones’s original defense attorneys, “there is a reasonable probability that his jury would not have convicted him of any of the crimes with which he was charged and previously convicted.” He sharply criticized Pesqueira for her failure to interview alternative suspects, and Dr. John Howard, the former Pima County medical examiner, whose estimates about the timing of Rachel’s fatal injury had inexplicably shifted from his pretrial interviews to his testimony to the hearing decades later. Had Jones’s defense attorneys done their job properly, Burgess wrote, “the jury would likely have found Dr. Howard’s testimony not credible or persuasive.”

Burgess’s decision validated the feelings of at least two jurors who had served on Jones’s trial, both of whom told me that they had been troubled by the weakness of his defense representation. Hildegard Stoecker remained especially disturbed by the case. She had followed news of the evidentiary hearing and was glad to hear that Burgess had overturned Jones’s conviction. Had she known about the issues brought up at the hearing, she wrote in an email this past August, “I know I would never have voted to convict Barry Jones.”

The Evo A. DeConcini United States Courthouse seen on Oct. 22 in Tucson, Ariz. 
(Caitlin O'Hara for The Intercept)

The Evo A. DeConcini United States Courthouse in Tucson, Ariz., on Oct. 22, 2018.

On November 14, prosecutors filed their appeal to the 9th Circuit. It was accompanied by thousands of pages of case records and exhibits — a daunting amount of material to review, especially given the expedited schedule ordered by the court. In their opening brief, prosecutors confidently reasserted Jones’s guilt, while rehashing arguments they have made before.

They insisted the medical evidence presented at the evidentiary hearing actually supported the state’s case against Jones. They argued that Jones’s trial lawyers had been perfectly adequate in investigating Rachel’s fatal injury, for example, by consulting with an independent pathologist. (Just because there was no indication the expert had ever reviewed the evidence necessary to provide an opinion didn’t mean it never happened.) Moreover, prosecutors said, even if the medical evidence did not prove that Jones had raped and fatally beaten Rachel, jurors would have found him guilty of endangering her health by failing to take her to the hospital the night before she died. Under Arizona law, this would still make him guilty of murder — and eligible for the death penalty.

Above all, the appeal invoked the powerful procedural barriers that routinely prevent people like Jones from winning challenges to their convictions. Under the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Strickland v. Washington, which governs ineffective assistance claims, courts must show considerable deference to the decisions made by defense lawyers. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that there must be a presumption that their actions were undertaken “for tactical reasons rather than through sheer neglect,” prosecutors wrote, arguing that Burgess was wrong to find Jones’s defense unconstitutionally inadequate.

More confusing was the state’s continued insistence that Burgess should never have granted the evidentiary hearing in the first place. Prosecutors invoked the most reliable bulwark against revisiting questionable convictions: the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Passed in 1996, a year after Jones was convicted, the sweeping law known as AEDPA drastically raised the bar for overturning convictions in federal court, in part by forcing judges like Burgess to show significant deference to rulings by state courts. When it came to ineffective assistance claims, AEDPA also bolstered rules shutting out such claims from federal review if a defendant had previously failed to bring them in state court.

For most people in Jones’s position, AEDPA is indeed the last word. But Jones got back into federal court thanks to a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that carved out a limited exception, at least in Arizona. Martinez v. Ryan held that, if the failure to bring an ineffective assistance claim in state court was itself due to the ineffectiveness of a state post-conviction attorney, a federal court could consider the claim. For Jones, Martinez opened the door to de novo review — a fresh consideration with no need to defer to a lower court. Crucially, this meant Burgess was not beholden to the strictures of AEDPA when considering his case.

Yet prosecutors insist the law still controls Jones’s fate. “Congress specifically intended AEDPA to limit federal evidentiary development,” they wrote, “and to restrict the general availability of habeas relief.” In other words, it was enough for Burgess to have reviewed Jones’s claim at all, they argued — Jones was not entitled to actually prove it in court.

In Sandman’s view, the AEPDA argument is “absurd.” Among other things, he pointed out that all the Supreme Court rulings prosecutors used to support it predate the Martinez ruling. “I’m not sure why they’re doing that,” he said. “Then again, I’m not sure why they’re doing anything that they are doing. Because if they were the least bit fair-minded, they would get on to either retrying Jones or let him go.”

Elishia Sloan at Picture Rock Park on Oct. 28 in Tucson, Ariz. (Caitlin O'Hara for The Intercept)

Elishia Sloan, photographed on Oct. 28, 2018, in Tucson, Ariz.

Apart from dubious legal arguments, the state’s appeal to the 9th Circuit is perhaps most striking for its highly selective narrative about what happened at the Desert Vista in the spring of 1994. Whereas prosecutors once argued that lead detective Sonia Pesqueira followed the evidence of guilt for Rachel’s injuries “directly to Jones,” there is no mention of her now. Instead the state constructed a circumstantial case against Jones, starting with the claim that 4-year-old Rachel was afraid of him in the weeks leading up to her death. But this assertion rests heavily on testimony from Rachel’s sister, Becky, who was 10 years old when her sister died and whose statements evolved significantly over time to further implicate Jones. For a reader intimately familiar not only with Jones’s case but also with the trial of Angela Gray, who was convicted of child abuse but acquitted of murder, it is not hard to notice such things. It is far less clear what the 9th Circuit will make of them.

In our conversation at McDonald’s, Sloan remembered being glad when Jones would return to the trailer at the end of the day. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh God, he’s home,’ the way it would be if he was an abuser,” she said. Like Jones’s own daughter, Brandie, who told police that her father never hit her, Sloan said Jones never laid a hand on her. She was just a few years older than Brandie; the girls used to sneak out of the trailer to hang out with the kids in the trailer park, which sometimes got them in trouble. Jones disciplined them but never harshly. “Barry caught me in the laundry room, kissing a boy, and I got grounded for, I swear, he said my ‘whole life,’” Sloan said. “But it ended up being a day.” Richmond remembered how if Brandie and Sloan wanted to smoke a cigarette, “they had to come inside and sit down in the room and read a book for an hour.”

“I hated it so much,” Sloan chuckled.

Sloan says she barely remembers anything from the time Jones went to death row. But she recalls being questioned by Pima County sex crimes prosecutor Kathy Mayer back in 1994. Sloan said Mayer tried unsuccessfully to get her to implicate Jones by showing her graphic photos from Rachel’s autopsy. “She’s like, ‘Look at these pictures. This could have been you,’” Sloan said. In her 2002 affidavit, Sloan wrote, “The prosecution wanted me to say how mean he was, but I would not lie.” Mayer, who retired earlier this year, did not return messages seeking comment.

Desert Vista Village seen on Oct. 22 in Tucson, Ariz. (Caitlin O'Hara for The Intercept)

Desert Vista Village, formerly known as the Desert Vista trailer park, on Oct. 22, 2018, in Tucson, Ariz.

In retrospect, Sloan says, the way they lived at the Desert Vista seems shocking. They didn’t always have food to eat; she remembers getting fresh fruit from a man who would bring produce in a truck from a food bank. Sometimes they got bags of leftover hamburgers that were thrown out by a nearby McDonald’s. “You look at it from the outside, and you’re like, ‘Wow. These poor kids,’” Sloan said. But she doesn’t remember her childhood as unhappy.

Richmond says that for all the problems at the trailer park — and despite what happened to Rachel — the community there tried to look out for one another, especially for the kids. Jones was particularly well-liked, Sloan remembered. “He would give you the shirt off his back,” she said. “Barry was a very nice-looking guy when we met,” Richmond says. She was “head over heels.” Richmond and Sloan passed by the Desert Vista when they returned to Tucson last year. “It looked the same, but it wasn’t the same, you know?” Richmond said.

Sloan felt guilty about falling out of touch with Jones. “It’s weird to see how he’s aged so much,” she said. She became emotional when I mentioned the letters he sent her from jail, which she did not remember now. Richmond said Jones wrote her a letter at one point and said, “‘If you’re not gonna be consistent about writing me, don’t write me anymore.’ And I didn’t. And I should’ve. But 24 years is a long time to write letters every day or every week, you know?”

The post His Conviction Was Overturned. Why Is Arizona Doing Everything in Its Power to Keep Barry Jones on Death Row? appeared first on The Intercept.