Friday, March 13, 2020
Today, the Supreme Court of Georgia issued its opinion in the Joey Watkins case, and...the news is good. In this post, I will break things down.
Facts: On January 11, 2000, Wayne Benson saw two vehicles engaged in a cat-and-mouse game a little under a mile north of Floyd College in Rome Georgia. Thereafter, about 1.9 miles further north-ish, one of the vehicles -- a truck driven by Floyd College student Isaac Dawkins -- crashed, followed by a 911 call reporting the crash at 7:19pm. Dawkins later died, and it was determined that his death was caused by a 9mm bullet to the head. Subsequently, someone shot Isaac Dawkins's dog and placed the dog on Dawkins's grave.
At the trial of Joey Watkins for the murder of Isaac Dawkins, prosecutor Tami Colston claimed that a bullet had not been extracted from the dog, and the State was thus allowed to present evidence about the shooting of the dog under the theory that Joey Watkins could have used the same caliber bullet to shoot Isaac Dawkins and his dog. What the State failed to disclose was that a bullet was extracted from the dog (and given to Colston the same day she claimed a bullet was not extracted), and it was a .22 caliber bullet.
At the end of the trial, as jury deliberations headed into the weekend, the jury was split 10-2, with 2 holdout jurors leaning toward a "not guilty" verdict. One holdout juror questioned whether Joey could have made it from the (State's best case) location of a cell tower ping from Joey's cell phone at 7:15pm* to the location of the shooting at 7:19pm. And so, over the weekend, the juror drove the route herself and determined that Joey could have just made it in time. But one of the many problems with the drive test was that the juror drove straight from the location of the ping to the location of the shooting -- 6.3 miles -- without accounting for Wayne Benson seeing the vehicles 1.9 miles south of the location of the shooting, which would have made the route 8.2 miles. Of course, another problem is that jurors are not allowed to do such drives tests, and the judge specifically told jurors in this case not to do drive tests. But the juror did do the drive test, and it changed her vote (and it might have led the juror to tell the other holdout juror to change his vote).
These two errors were discovered in 2016. Specifically,
-the Georgia Innocence Project learned about the bullet after finding the chain of custody form for the dog, which had a different case number than the number for the Isaac Dawkins case; and
-Susan Simpson learned about the juror while interviewing her for the podcast.
Thereafter, in 2017, the Georgia Innocence Project filed a second petition for writ of habeas corpus a decade and a half after Joey's conviction and after Joey had previously filed an initial, unsuccessful petition for writ of habeas corpus.
Legal Proceedings: The Circuit Court denied Joey's second habeas petition, holding that "'[p]etitioner could reasonably have raised his current claims in his original petition through speaking with the juror who allegedly committed misconduct and by obtaining records through the Open Records Act' to discover the allegedly exculpatory evidence."
The Supreme Court of Georgia initially declined to hear Joey's appeal from this ruling before changing course. This then led t0 oral arguments in November and finally today's opinion. With regard to the juror misconduct claim, the Supreme Court of Georgia held that
in the absence of any indication of irregularity, due diligence did not require Watkins to seek out trial jurors in order to uncover any possible misconduct. The contrary view would require convicted defendants, or their counsel, family, or friends on their behalf, to interview in every case each and every juror within four years of a felony conviction becoming final, even with no suggestion of jury misconduct, or risk possible dismissal of a future habeas claim. This would place a heavy burden not only upon counsel, but also upon jurors, who would be questioned about such matters and perhaps harassed, even without any indication that they had engaged in improper conduct.
And, with regard to the bullet claim, the Supreme Court of Georgia held that
Watkins has alleged that the State failed to disclose exculpatory evidence in its files, which this Court has considered a “significant factor.” In addition, only repeated and persistent requests under the Open Records Act over a period of years eventually revealed the missing evidence. Finally, diligence does not require that defendants submit multiple, wide-ranging Open Records Act requests to every State actor or agency that might possess records pertinent to their cases, in order to determine whether the State lived up to its disclosure obligations. Watkins’ petition, with its attached affidavits incorporated by reference and the additional affidavit from the GBI agent, outlining the extraordinary effort required here and the State’s apparent failure to disclose, sufficiently alleges that Watkins, in the exercise of reasonable diligence, could not have acquired the material at an earlier date.
These two findings thus led to the court's ultimate conclusion that
that Watkins has alleged facts showing grounds for relief which could not reasonably have been raised in his original habeas petition and which could not have been discovered 23 by the reasonable exercise of due diligence. This is sufficient to satisfy the requirements of OCGA §§ 9-14-42 (c) (4) and 9-14-51, to withstand a motion to dismiss, and to entitle him at least to an evidentiary hearing on these allegations. We therefore reverse the habeas court’s dismissal of Watkins’ petition and remand this case for further proceedings.
Simply put, the Supreme Court of Georgia held that neither of Joey's claims are procedurally barred and remanded down to the Circuit Court so that it can determine whether they have substantive merit, likely after an evidentiary hearing (at which the holdout juror(s) can testify and other evidence/testimony can be presented).
So, do Joey's claims have substantive merit? The bullet claim is a Constitutional Brady claim, which essentially asks the Circuit Court to find that (1) the trial judge would not have allowed evidence of the shooting of Isaac's dog if it were clear that Isaac and the dog were killed with different caliber bullets; and (2) if evidence of the shooting of the dog had been excluded, there's a reasonable probability Joey wouldn't have been convicted. The defense has a strong claim on both of these elements because (1) there was really no evidence tying Joey to the shooting of Isaac's dog; and (2) the jurors visibly seemed to turn on Joey when evidence about the dog was presented at trial.
Meanwhile, the jury misconduct claim 100% establishes a case of juror misconduct. But is that claim an evidentiary claim or a Constitutional claim, as required for habeas relief? Today, one of the Georgia Supreme Court Justices -- Justice Blackwell -- issued a concurring opinion questioning whether the jury misconduct claim is a Constitutional claim. I personally think it's a Constitutional claim, and I will discuss this in more detail in a later post.
In any event, Joey just needs to win on one of these claims to get a new trial.
*We've noted the issues with cell tower pings on Undisclosed, but we noted in our Undisclosed series on the Joey Watkins case why the elevations of the surrounding areas in this case circumscribes the possible location for this ping.