EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Watkins v. State and Jury Impeachment in Georgia

In yesterday's Undisclosed episode, we noted how the defense team filed an application for writ of habeas corpus in the Joey Watkins case. We also noted how, amazingly, the case that most strongly supports Joey's appeal is actually another Georgia case by the name of Watkins v. State. We discussed this case a bit in the episode, but I thought I'd flesh out that discussion in this post (Note: don't read past the fold if you haven't yet listened to the episode).

As we discussed on the episode, when the jury ended deliberations in the Joey Watkins case on a Saturday, Juror #8 was one of the holdout jurors leaning toward a "not guilty" verdict. As a result, just like Juror #8 in "Twelve Angry Men," she conducted experiment: she drove what she thought was the route between the 7:15 P.M. cell tower ping and the murder scene to see whether Joey could have made it from Point A to Point B in the murder timeline. Of course, unlike the juror in "Twelve Angry Men, this experiment left her convinced of the defendant's guilt.

Now, Juror #8 has submitted an affidavit admitting to her drive test, a test that was done despite Judge Matthews instructing jurors:

"Listen, don’t go measuring distances or stopping by the scene and investigating on your own…Don’t go out there and start measuring things off with your odometer.  You have to base your decision in any trial like this on what you hear in the courtroom from the witness stand and you can’t go investigating anything on your own.  So please don’t do that."  

So, is this grounds for a new trial? According to the opinion of the Supreme Court of Georgia in Watkins v. State, 229 S.E.2d 465 (Ga. 1976), the answer is "yes."

In Watkins

the victim, a Coweta County Deputy Sheriff, was patrolling a rural area of the county. The deputy testified that after he had stopped a car that did not have a license tag, the passenger whom the deputy identified as [Earnest Watkins], pointed a pistol at him. The driver of the vehicle handcuffed the deputy's hands behind his back. The two men then led the deputy into a wooded area where the driver beat and kicked the deputy until he lost consciousness. When the deputy awoke, he discovered that his pistol was missing. After his arrest one or two days later, [Watkins] confessed to the crimes and led police to the scene. His confession was admitted into evidence at his trial....

During the defense case, Watkins

testified that on the day in question he was working on his car in Fairburn, Georgia. This alibi testimony was corroborated by seven other defense witnesses, each of whom had been with appellant at various times from early morning to the early afternoon of August 25, 1975. In explanation of his confession appellant testified that the sheriff was asking so many questions of him that he merely began answering ‘Yes' to all of them. Furthermore, he testified that he did not lead the police to the scene of the crimes, but, rather, was taken there by the police and asked if that were the place.

The jury, however, rejected this alibi and convicted Watkins. After Watkins was convicted, he presented

affidavits of three jurors and also called five other jurors to testify as to this alleged misconduct. This evidence shows that during the course of the trial two jurors made an unauthorized visit to the scene of the crime and gauged the time it took to drivefrom there to [Watkins]'s house. Their findings, which were reported to the full jury, explained a critical time lapse in the sequence of events surrounding the alleged crime. The trial court denied [Watkins]'s motion for a new trial by applying the familiar rule that jurors cannot impeach their own verdict.

In addressing Watkins's ensuing appeal, the Supreme Court of Georgia began by noting that there are several public policy considerations that support the general rule that jurors can't impeach their verdict: "the need to keep inviolate the sanctity of juror deliberations, the desirability of promoting the finality of jury verdicts and the necessity of protecting jurors from post-trial harassment."

That said, the court ultimately concluded that

Under the circumstances of the present case, the rule prohibiting jurors from impeaching their own verdict cannot be applied without emasculating the constitutional right to a fair trial. Therefore, we hold the rule is inapplicable....The rule has a valid and salutary application in disallowing jurors to impeach their verdicts on the basis of statements made to one another in the jury room and the effect of those statements on the minds of the individual jurors. However, the intentional gathering of extra judicial evidence, highly prejudicial to the accused, by members of the jury and the communication of that information to the other jurors in the closed jury room is inimical to our present jury trial system. This misconduct cannot be ingored and requires a reversal of the judgment based on the jury's verdict in this case.

As we noted in last night's episode, it's hard to imagine a more favorable precedent. The jurors in the older Watkins case did essentially the exact same thing as the juror in the current Watkins case. The only real difference is that the evidence against Earnest Watkins (an alleged confession and leading police to the crime scene) was much stronger than the evidence against Joey Watkins. As such, it seems like Joey has a really good shot at getting habeas relief.



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Colin, any issue here in a. The fact that there's been several appeals that have been declined, or b. The long time that has transpired.

Posted by: Mikael Waernlund | Jan 19, 2017 2:19:24 PM

Is it sufficient to just prove the misconduct occurred for a new trial to be ordered? Or is it subject to some sort of harmless error or prejudice analysis?

Posted by: Jeff P | Jan 19, 2017 5:16:51 PM

Mikael: I can’t remember whether it made the final episode cut, but there’s a Georgia case – Turpin v. Todd (http://caselaw.findlaw.com/ga-supreme-court/1395205.html) – holding that claims of juror misconduct can be brought on subsequent appeals as long as there was no reason for prior attorneys to suspect such misconduct.

Jeff P: It’s subject to a harmless error analysis.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Jan 20, 2017 4:14:26 AM

Can you do a post on 'harmless error analysis'? Thanks.

Posted by: Michael | Jan 21, 2017 5:33:40 AM

Could the state distinguish the Watkins case by saying Juror #8 only shared the results of her experiment with one other juror, rather than the whole jury?

Posted by: Cupcake | Jan 23, 2017 10:57:32 AM

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