Man Convicted In Taco Bell Murder Exonerated After 23 Years In Prison: 'I get to finally go home'

A Georgia man who spent 23 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit was released this week into the arms of his family, almost eight years after DNA evidence presented in court pointed to another man as the rightful suspect.

"It took a really long time to fix, even though it was so clear I wasn't guilty," Devonia Inman said after walking out of the Augusta State Medical Prison on Monday, according to the Georgia Innocence Project, or GIP, which championed his case. "I'm glad I get to finally go home, and I'm grateful to everyone who helped make that possible."

The 1998 murder for which he'd been sentenced to life without parole unfolded outside a Taco Bell in Adel.

The restaurant's night manager, Donna Brown, was fatally shot in the face while in the parking lot. The assailant fled with about $1,700 in that day's cash receipts along with the victim's car. When the vehicle was found, authorities discovered a distinctive homemade ski mask left inside.

The mask would prove crucial, but not until after Inman was tried.

Lacking any physical evidence that tied Inman to the crime, the prosecution played up testimony from four key witnesses — three of whom later recanted, reports the Atlanta Journal Constitution, which dug into the case in a 2017 podcast.

Inman's legal team tried to call defense witnesses to testify that another man, Hercules Brown — no relation to the victim — allegedly committed and confessed to the murder. But the judge refused to let jurors hear it, and the prosecutor claimed there was not "one scintilla of evidence" connecting Brown to the robbery and killing, according to GIP.

Among other evidence that jurors never heard, according to GIP: Before Inman's trial, police had stopped Brown as he was allegedly planning to commit a robbery, and in his car they found a homemade mask similar to the one linked to the Taco Bell murder.

Meanwhile, with Inman in jail, Brown was involved in an armed robbery months after the Taco Bell murder that left two people dead. Brown pleaded guilty to those murders and was sentenced to life in prison without parole, reports the Journal Constitution.

Years after Inman's conviction for malice murder and armed robbery, GIP picked up his case and secured post-trial DNA testing on the mask "that showed Hercules Brown's DNA — and only his DNA — was on that mask," according to the organization.

Subsequent legal efforts led to a ruling last month that ordered a new trial for Inman, after a judge who concluded that prosecutors had withheld evidence tossed out his conviction.

The Georgia Attorney General's Office declined to appeal that ruling, prompting the local district attorney to dismiss all charges and set Inman free.

Among those who drew attention to Inman is Jess Cino, an attorney who — as a law professor at Georgia State University — began to guide a student investigation into the case in 2015 through her forensic evidence and wrongful convictions courses. "It would be easy to say that justice was done in this case, but justice was very much delayed," Cino said in a statement to PEOPLE. "We've had the DNA results for 10 years, but courts kept slamming the door."

Actress and producer Hilarie Burton Morgan also focused on Inman's story last fall with the debut of her True Crime Story: It Couldn't Happen Here documentary series on SundanceTV and AMC+.

"As a mother, Devonia's case haunted me," Morgan said in a statement to PEOPLE. "The dedication of his parents, Dinah and Dave Ray, was humbling to witness. The optimism of Devonia's son — now a father himself — was so honorable and heartbreaking. It is imperative that we support the many victims of this gross injustice with continued care. Georgia is one of only 13 states that does not have a statutory compensation law, so Devonia will see no financial relief for the decades he lost to a flawed judicial system. It is infuriating."

A donation campaign set up by GIP has now raised more than $10,000 to "help Devonia rebuild his life."

"The hard part for the legal team ended on Monday," said Cino. "For Devonia, the hard part began Monday. Devonia lost 23 years of his life and he is going to have to start completely over, get to know his family, grieve those he lost while incarcerated, and adjust to a brand new life. He went to prison in 1998. Life in 2021 is very different."

GIP Executive Director Clare Gilbert said in a statement: "After Devonia Inman had already lost 21 years to wrongful imprisonment, Georgia's Attorney General added insult to injury by continuing to defend the conviction for two more years at taxpayer expense — despite significant evidence supporting Devonia's innocence and direct urging by leading justices of Georgia's Supreme Court to 'Let Justice be Done.' We hope the Attorney General's office will now exercise more discretion and responsibility to swiftly right the wrong in clear cases of innocence and injustice."

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