Saturday, September 23, 2023–4:00 a.m.
-John Baley, Rome News-Tribune-
This story is possible because of a news-sharing agreement with the Rome News-Tribune. More information can be found at northwestgeorgianews.com.
Prosecutors have dropped all charges against Joseph Watkins after a review of the evidence that led to his 2001 conviction on murder charges being overturned.
The filing submitted Thursday frees Watkins, who spent 22 years in prison until the Georgia Supreme Court upheld a Constitutional challenge to his conviction.
The Floyd County District Attorney’s Office initially stated they intended to prosecute Watkins, however, the filing in Floyd County Superior Court stated the charges have been dropped after a review of the evidence.
“There has been for some time substantial evidence he was innocent,” Watkins’ attorney Ben Goldberg said. It has taken time to get that evidence reconsidered and reviewed, he said, but because of cooperation with the DA’s office, justice has been served.
“Cooperation on this stuff is key and thankfully we’ve had it here,” Goldberg said. “We wouldn’t be where we are today without the cooperation of the DA’s office. They made the right decision.”
Describing it as a group effort, Goldberg and Georgia Innocence Project Senior Attorney Christina Cribbs expressed their gratitude
“We are very grateful, not only to our amazing co-counsel Ben Goldberg, Noah Pines, and Meagan Hurley, but also that the prosecuting attorney exercised her discretion to do justice in this case, and right the wrong of Joey’s 22 years of unjust imprisonment,” Cribbs said.
Trials and appeals
Watkins was charged with the Jan. 11, 2000, shooting death of Isaac Dawkins near what is now Georgia Highlands College. He and a co-defendant Mark Free were arrested nearly 10 months after the shooting and Watkins was subsequently convicted.
Watkins has maintained his innocence since his arrest but was convicted in 2001. Free was tried separately and acquitted on all charges.
In December 2022, the high court unanimously affirmed a Constitutional challenge to Watkins’ conviction on a murder charge in Floyd County. He remained in prison and at Floyd County Jail until a Jan. 3 bond hearing where he was released on $75,000 bond.
Prior to the charges being dropped this week, Watkins unsuccessfully appealed his conviction several times. However, in 2017 attorneys with the Georgia Innocence Project filed a civil petition — referred to as a habeas corpus — to have his conviction overturned.
“We are absolutely thrilled that Joey Watkins has been exonerated and all charges against him have been dismissed,” GIP Executive Director Clare Gilbert said.
In April 2022, by showing new evidence of violations of his constitutional rights, Watkins finally was successful. Walker County Superior Court Judge Don W. Thompson outlined several reasons in that order.
He stated that prosecutors violated Watkins’ Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses against him, in this instance a juror in his own trial.
During his 2001 trial, prosecutors had argued that cellphone location evidence proved Watkins was in the area of the shooting.
Reexamination and release
The case was the subject of the second season of the Undisclosed podcast series. The audio series examined the case as well as the trial processes that led to Watkins’ conviction. As a result of the investigation, they uncovered evidence that an out-of-court test was conducted by a juror during the trial.
The juror came forward about conducting a driving experiment to test the cellphone location evidence. The juror said they based their decision to convict Watkins, at least partially, on that test.
Jurors are supposed to make a determination of guilt based solely on evidence presented in court.
Another issue regarding cellphone evidence, Goldberg said, is that it’s difficult to interpret and understand, especially during the time of his original trial. Cell tower records from that day, once reviewed, prove definitively that Watkins was not in the area, he said.
Another issue during the 2001 trial, was that the former district attorney Tami Colston did not disclose potentially exculpatory evidence concerning the caliber of a bullet used to kill a dog that was left near Dawkins’ grave. Prosecutors had argued that Watkins shot the dog, potentially with the same gun used to kill Dawkins.
However, the bullet found in the dog was .22 caliber, different from the one used to shoot Dawkins. Judge Thompson said the fact that was not disclosed to Watkins’ attorneys was particularly damaging to his defense during the trial.
When Goldberg came on the case seven years ago, at the request of the GIP director, there wasn’t a lot of hope. They felt they had the evidence to overturn the conviction but it didn’t seem likely.
“We were at the lowest of lows and it seemed to be hopeless,” he said. “But after the first reversal (by the Georgia Supreme Court in 2019) the trajectory of the case just changed.”
The high court had initially declined to hear Watkins’ habeas appeal, but a few days later reversed its position. After that, a series of smaller and bigger wins in the case brought it back to Floyd County and then dismissal.
“Part of why we’re here today is that in 2012 the Georgia Legislature changed the evidence code in Georgia. A lot of evidence that was admissible in his original trial is no longer admissible,” Goldberg said. “I’m hopeful Joey and his family can start the healing process.”