Last week, in a two-sentence decision, the powers that be again turned a blind eye to Joey Watkins’ quest for justice.
Here’s the background.
Over fifteen years after Joey’s wrongful imprisonment for the murder of Isaac Dawkins and during an extraordinarily intensive investigation into Joey’s case by the Undisclosed podcast and by the Georgia Innocence Project, evidence of misconduct was unearthed – misconduct that apparently played a key role in Joey’s conviction at trial. It was the same type of misconduct that has caused the Georgia appellate courts to overturn others’ convictions. The misconduct was that:
1. During deliberations in Joey’s trial, a hold-out juror (who was inclined to vote for acquittal) conducted a timed drive test related to the confusingly-presented cell phone evidence, and, as a result, changed her verdict to guilty. Jurors are not permitted to undertake this kind of extra-judicial investigation, because it introduces evidence into the jury room that was not part of the trial, and it deprives the defendant of his right to hear and challenge that evidence. Here, the judge had even instructed the jurors not to conduct their own drive tests.
2. The State buried exculpatory physical evidence that refuted its inflammatory and unsupported claim that Joey shot a dog in the head and dumped its dead body on Dawkins’ grave in a depraved “signature” or “calling card” pattern (Isaac Dawkins had also been shot in the head). The trial prosecutor and a crime lab expert witness also falsely told the jury, the Court, and Joey’s trial attorneys that the exculpatory evidence did not exist – despite having the evidence in their possession in court. The United States Supreme Court held more than half a century ago that the prosecution must disclose any exculpatory evidence to a criminal defendant, and the Georgia Supreme Court has long made clear that the State may not knowingly allow a witness to testify falsely.
Based on this newly unearthed information, GIP and co-counsel Ben Goldberg filed a second habeas corpus petition for Joey Watkins. A habeas corpus petition is a kind of civil lawsuit in which a prisoner like Joey can challenge their unlawful imprisonment. A habeas petition must be filed within certain timeframes, and prisoners are generally allowed only one, absent very limited exceptions that existed here.
In May 2018, we joined Joey in Walker County Superior Court for a hearing on the habeas petition to argue that Joey is entitled to have his conviction overturned based on the juror and prosecutorial misconduct that violated his constitutional rights. Or rather … we would have argued that, if it was a hearing on the merits.
Instead, the State of Georgia had moved to dismiss our habeas petition on procedural grounds, asserting that Joey was too late to bring such claims. Accordingly, we argued to the habeas court that Georgia law is clear and controlling – that Joey’s new claims are timely and he is entitled to a hearing on the merits.
The Walker County Superior Court Judge sided with the State, finding that Joey Watkins should have discovered and raised the misconduct claims earlier. The Court advised the parties that in order to provide diligent representation, habeas counsel would in every case need to interview all trial jurors to ensure that none engaged in misconduct, and that jurors could expect to be contacted by convicted defendants or their lawyers for years following their trial service. The Judge then signed an order prepared by the State, dismissing Joey’s habeas petition.
We appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court, seeking review of the habeas court’s erroneous order. Or rather … we would have appealed, but – unlike when the State loses a habeas petition and has an automatic right to appeal – we first had to ask the Georgia Supreme Court for permission to appeal. Last week, roughly eleven months after we sought that permission, the Georgia Supreme Court came back with a two-sentence decision denying our request.
Unless the Court changes its mind, Joey Watkins will not be allowed to appeal the habeas court’s order.
Why does it matter?
The habeas court’s decision contravenes settled Georgia law, disregards significant public policy considerations, and upholds the conviction of an innocent man. It denies justice to Joey Watkins while creating sweeping implications for Georgia’s criminal justice system if other judges follow suit.
The law in Georgia is clear that juror misconduct of the type that occurred at Joey’s trial is unconstitutional and justifies overturning a conviction. The law is also clear that there is no duty to interview jurors to ferret out such misconduct prior to the first habeas, unless something alerted the convicted person or their attorney to the misconduct. But now, the Walker County Superior Court has held that unless habeas litigants like Joey Watkins or their lawyers do just that (ferret out any potential juror misconduct before the first habeas) then they forfeit the ability to prevail on juror misconduct claims that they are alerted to after the first habeas.
There are some major public policy considerations implicated by the court’s decision. Instead of encouraging defense counsel not to interview jurors unless something has alerted them to potential misconduct, and even then to be very careful to avoid harassment, the opposite message is now being sent. The new message is: interview all jurors before habeas filing deadlines in order to demonstrate diligence, and dig deep to unearth potential misconduct. But how would that work? Will courts be required to provide jurors’ names and contact information to convicted defendants and their lawyers after trial? Will courts need to advise jurors that the defendant’s lawyer – or even the defendant – may well come to their door asking questions about the trial, years into the future? What will jurors think of this? What if jurors don’t want to be found, or don’t want to talk?
Furthermore, incarcerated people in post-conviction proceedings have no constitutional right to counsel, and they are often indigent. Hiring an attorney to interview twelve jurors would be prohibitively expensive for nearly all Georgians, and the courts will not pay for an investigation. Will the convicted person’s friends and family have to do it for them?
Equally concerning is the habeas court’s finding that Joey should have discovered the prosecutorial misconduct earlier. Is the State now permitted to bury, hide, and make false representations about the existence of key exculpatory evidence, so long as it is discovered after habeas filing deadlines? Is the defendant no longer entitled to presume that the state’s witnesses are testifying accurately and the prosecutor’s representations to the Court are truthful? Has the extraordinary effort to reveal misconduct in Joey’s case (filing five Open Records Act requests on the exact same question AND tracking down the State’s former pathologist in another state to uncover buried evidence) become the new standard for due diligence? Do we really want to create a system where the State may hide and the defendant must seek?
”There are two ways this ruling can be interpreted,” says Georgia Innocence Project Executive Director Clare Gilbert. “Either it represents new legal obligations for all habeas petitioners that are contrary to settled law and public policy, or Joey Watkins is subject to different laws than everyone else.”
There is no denying that the law in Georgia is hard. We are sad and disappointed by the decision. But you know by now that we encounter frequent setbacks in this work. While this is a big one, we are not defeated. We will not give up. We will not give up on Joey or our other clients. We will not give up on our belief in justice, integrity and accountability; our moral compass. And we will not give up on the simple, common-sense notion that innocent people should not be imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.