AUGUSTA – When Devonia Inman was released from Augusta State Medical Prison Dec. 20 after spending two decades behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit, he became one of more than 2,900 people since 1989 to be exonerated in the country.
Maurice Possley, National Registry of Exonerations senior researcher, said wrongful convictions commonly stem from perjury, false accusations, misconduct by officials, incorrect witness identification and false confessions.
Inman was accused of wearing a ski mask during the robbery and murder of Donna Brown, a white store manager of a Taco Bell in Adel, Georgia, in the parking lot of the restaurant in 1998.
Inman’s attorneys say police coerced witnesses into identifying Inman — who had been arrested after the murder in an unrelated incident — as the suspect. Prosecutors sought the death penalty for Inman, though he was ultimately sentenced to life without parole.
He spent 23 years behind bars for the murder based on testimony from witnesses who later recanted.
NRE reports that Black people are seven times more likely to be wrongly convicted of murder than white people; of Black people convicted of murder, only 15% of the victims are white, but that number doubles as it pertains to the percentage of Black people, 31%, who were later wrongly convicted of murdering a white person.
“All of it is wrapped up in the way that race plays into the criminal legal system,” said Christina Cribbs, senior attorney for nonprofit Georgia Innocence Project, which represents and assists those who have been wrongly convicted in Georgia.
“Specifically in this case, Donna Brown was a white woman and anytime you have a white victim, and the person that is arrested and prosecuted for the offense is really non-white, but especially Black, there is a very much higher chance that the state will actually seek the death penalty in those cases which they did do in Devonia's case.”
A fundraiser was launched Dec. 20 by GIP for Inman to begin his new life, as Georgia is one of more than 10 states — including Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Kentucky, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wyoming — that does not provide compensation to exonerees after a wrongful conviction.
In these states, some nonprofits provide assistance or fundraisers are launched individually. In Georgia, an exoneree can petition to a state legislator who can sponsor an individual compensation bill that would have to garner majority approval in the state legislature.
The process is often unfair as there are no set procedures for determining amounts and compensation can be different for each exoneree, Cribbs said.
“Sometimes those are successful and sometimes they're not. And one of the big problems with it is that there are no guidelines or structures so it's very hit or miss,” Cribbs said. “Like the compensation statutes in other states, they typically have a dollar amount that you get for each year that you're wrongfully convicted. They range anywhere from like $30,000 to $70,000 (per year) depending on the state.”
Robert Clark was exonerated in Georgia in 2005 after serving more than 23 years in prison for a 1981 rape he didn’t commit; then-Gov. Sonny Perdue signed a bill into law that granted Clark $1.2 million over time.
Only a handful of other exonerees in Georgia have received payments, a couple of them less than half that amount, though nearly equitable in the amount of time they’d served, according to reports.
Attempts have been made in previous legislative session to pass an exoneree compensation bill in Georgia but no laws have been approved. NRE reports more than 45 cases of exoneration in Georgia since 1989.
Advocates said compensation is a necessary form of eradicating the injustice of the wrongly convicted and helps provide them with financial support for basic necessities like food, transportation, housing, medical care and mental health services.
Education and workforce assistance and legal services are also important to exonerees, according to advocacy groups.
“We connect our clients with counseling services and things like that to try to help them deal with that trauma of being incarcerated for too long,” Cribbs said. “We try to help them get back on track but it's definitely not easy. It's not all sunshine and rainbows once they finally get back out into the world. It's really difficult for them to transition back and just deal with all of that emotional baggage.”
Cribbs is hopeful for Inman’s success in the workforce as he is only 43 years old; older exonerees often face greater challenges.
“A lot of our clients when they come out they might be 60 or over 60 and they’ve had terrible health care in prison for the last decades and so they're really in a difficult position where they can't do physical work,” Cribbs explained. “And also, you can imagine somebody that’s in their 60s that has been in prison for the last 20, 30 or 40 years. ... They’re not good at technology either, so they can't do an office sit-down job. It can be very difficult to connect people to jobs that are suitable for them.”
Like Georgia Innocence Project, various groups have formed to help overturn wrongful convictions and help provide assistance to those who have been exonerated. States with higher exoneration numbers are typically more populated and have agencies fighting for the cause, Possley said.
"(Exonerations are) going to be driven by a number of innocence organizations that work to exonerate people," Possley said. "Increasingly, we see the emergence of conviction integrity units to the extent that these units which are based in prosecutor's offices and work to exonerate wrongfully convicted people. To the extent that Innocence Projects will tell you that the demand far exceeds the available resources. The conviction integrity units in certain areas are very, very active."
Conviction integrity units — division of a prosecutorial office that works to prevent, identify and remedy false convictions — have become more common in larger cities. Georgia's two reported CIUs are in metro Atlanta: one in Fulton County and the most recent unit launched in Cobb County this year.
Georgia exoneree talks importance of compensation laws
After being wrongly convicted in 1999 of armed robbery at a store in Columbus, Georgia, and subsequently sentenced to serve 15 years in prison, Lathan Word was exonerated in the summer of 2011 after nearly 12 years, having done most of the research for his appeal himself while incarcerated.
State legislators approved a compensation resolution of $400,000 to Word more than two years after his release. He started receiving the funds in 2014, he said.
"That was nothing. To me the amount and the money you can never repay a man for 12 years that was enlisted in the Marines. I had a future that no one can ever paint the picture," said Word, who is now 40 years old. "(The state) took me through the ringer and when they awarded me the money, they actually put a clause in saying that if I catch another charge then they get all the money back. I was like cool, I don't see myself getting in any trouble, but in return I made myself a target and they did a lot to square me in."
He said the the funds were beneficial after not having family support after his release; some of his family had died while he was in prison and shortly after his release. Though he was able to find employment almost immediately following his release — despite the charge still showing on his record, Word said he had to use his own finances to have his record expunged nearly two years later.
"It should be mandated that every state has a wrongful conviction compensation law in place just as you have all the laws to send them to prison. It's only right," Word said. "There's no way you can have five million laws to send someone to jail and prison if you don't have one law to reward them or reconstruct their life for wrongly incarcerating them. I came home to no male figure, just the 80-year-old grandmother and an aunt that died 27 days after I was free. So I had to figure this thing out."
Compensation is crucial to finding housing, which Word said is crucial to mental stability for exonerees. He admits to receiving nine months of counseling following his release for anger management, stemming from abuse of authority issues he endured while in prison. He opined that counseling and additional money for school should also be supplemented to exonerees.
"Being released with no family, that hinders (them), which puts (them) in a place of PTSD, puts (them) in a place of being bipolar, mental illness," Word said. "It's a mental strain on them if they don't have help. So that's why (compensation laws) should be in place because if they were done wrong, then you should right your wrong and the only way to right your wrong is to offer them support"
A look at some state exoneree compensation laws
Alabama: A minimum of $50,000 for each year of incarceration is offered to those wrongly convicted or who have been incarcerated pretrial on a state felony charge. The state's Committee on Compensation for Wrongful Incarceration can recommend additional amounts that must be approved through the legislature. Alabama has had at least 34 exonerations since 1989, according to NRE data.
Mississippi: A person who is wrongfully convicted and imprisoned can receive $50,000 per year of incarceration, if they can prove again to the state that they did not commit the offense, and if they can show that they did not fabricate evidence to bring about their original conviction through false confessions. Twenty-seven exonerations were reported in the state since 1989.
Tennessee: Any exonerated or pardoned person is entitled to a total of $1 million for the entirety of a wrongful incarceration, according to Innocence Project. In determining the amount of compensation, the state's board of claims can consider the person's physical and mental suffering and loss of earnings. The claim must be filed within one year of exoneration. NRE reported an estimated 25 exonerations since 1989.