Looking Back as the Fiscal Year Ends!

Lee Clark embraces his uncle after being released from jail.

As a fellow traveler in the mission to end wrongful incarceration, I want to take this opportunity to thank you. Thank you for sharing our commitment to this work! You are an integral part of our community–and it is thanks to you that we have had an incredible year at GIP. You have shared in our struggle to free innocent people from prison, and I am honored to invite you to also share in the joy of some of our recent successes.

A Free Man, A Family On The Mend

On December 8th, 2022, Darrell Lee Clark walked out of the Floyd County Jail and into the arms of family. 

His release came just hours after a hearing on his extraordinary motion for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence. The Rome Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office agreed that Clark’s conviction should be overturned and quickly dismissed all underlying charges, officially exonerating him of the 1996 shooting death of his friend, Brian  Bowling.   

That hearing brought closure not only to Lee and his family but to Brian Bowling’s family as well, who were in supportive attendance. Some of Brian’s family even went on the record to share tearful words of love for Lee and his co-defendant, Josh, and regret for what happened in the aftermath of Brian’s death. 

By his side, through it all, was Glen Clark, Lee’s father. “I’ve been waiting on this day for a long, long time, and I can’t begin to thank everyone who has supported us. Without y’all, we wouldn’t have made it,” said Glen. 

So what led to Lee’s exoneration? New evidence of police misconduct during the initial police investigation came to light. This included threats made to a critical witness as well as other witness manipulation tactics. Horrifically, official misconduct such as this is a factor in more than half of known wrongful convictions. 

“What we should take away from this is that unfettered power, without proper checks and balances, leaves ripe the opportunity for mistakes and misconduct. Proper oversight, coupled with educational initiatives designed to prevent and correct wrongful convictions, is key,” explained Meagan Hurley, GIP’s Accountability Counsel. 

With this nightmare behind him and with plenty of family support, Lee is focused on readjusting and healing after spending his entire adult life behind bars for something he did not do. This past December, Lee got to spend his first holiday season at home as a free man.“Never would I have thought I would spend more than half my life in prison, especially for something I didn’t do,” said Lee. “I’m just glad the truth finally came to light after 25 years. I’m so thankful for the Georgia Innocence Project and Proof Podcast for what they did. Without them, I would still be in prison.”

Joey Watkins immediately after his release from jail with members of his GIP legal team and pro bono attorney Ben Goldberg.

A Major Victory At The Georgia Supreme Court

A longtime client of GIP, Joey Watkins’ story became a topic of public discussion when it was featured on the podcast, Undisclosed. Joey was accused of shooting and killing Isasc Dawkins near Georgia Highlands College in Rome, GA in January 2000. Despite having a strong alibi and with little evidence against him,  Joey was charged with murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Last spring, we were thrilled to have secured a big win for Joey when Judge Don W. Thompson of the Superior Court of Walker County granted Joey’s petition for writ of habeas corpus. We presented the judge with compelling new evidence of constitutional violations committed against Joey.

But the fight wasn’t over. Georgia’s Attorney General appealed the decision to the Georgia Supreme Court. This past October, one member of Joey’s legal team, our Senior Attorney Christina Cribbs, presented a compelling oral argument before the Georgia Supreme Court. The justices fired off questions as Christina explained to the Court that Joey’s Sixth Amendment rights to confront witnesses against him were violated when a juror conducted a driving experiment to test the cell phone location evidence supporting Joey’s alibi. The juror (who had been instructed by the judge not to conduct their own research) said they based their decision to convict Watkins, at least partially, on that test. By doing so and by sharing what they thought they learned from the test with at least one other juror, the juror became a witness against Joey rather than an impartial fact-finder. 

The Georgia Supreme Court agreed that this was a constitutional violation and affirmed the lower court’s decision (which found two additional constitutional violations) to vacate Joey’s conviction on December 20, 2022. Joey returned home to his family this January after 22 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. 

But the fight still isn’t over. With his conviction overturned, Joey won the right to a new, fair trial. That means that the state can re-try him for Dawkins’ death. We are hopeful that, in light of the lack of evidence against Joey, the State will decide to drop the charges. But as always, we are ready to continue this fight alongside our co-counsel, Ben Goldberg and Noah Pines, if the state does proceed with a new trial.

Sonny Bharadia testifies at a hearing for his habeas corpus petition on June 20th.

On The Horizon…

As summer heats up, we remain as busy as ever. In fact, just last week our team spent all day at the Gwinnett County Superior Court for a long-awaited habeas corpus hearing on behalf of Sandeep “Sonny” Bharadia.

In 2003, Sonny was convicted of a burglary and sexual assault that occurred in Thunderbolt, GA in 2001. He was sentenced to life in prison, where he remains today. Shortly after his conviction, DNA testing from inside the pair of gloves worn by the attacker proved Sonny was not the perpetrator.  Instead, the DNA showed that Sterling Flint, a man who testified against Sonny, committed the crime. 

Sonny’s case was rife with issues: from unreliable cross-racial eyewitness identification to the rural police department losing and destroying evidence to Flint’s false testimony, to ineffective assistance of his trial and appellate counsel. It seems that what could go wrong did go wrong for Sonny. As a result, he remains incarcerated for a crime he did not commit.

Please follow along with Sonny’s case as we work to bring him home. We will post updates on our social media and website.

Will You Join Us Once Again As We Continue Our Fight?

Each of the clients you read about in this letter, along with many more, relies on your generosity to be able to continue to pursue their freedom. Your dollars are put to work every day as we review applications, investigate cases, obtain forensic testing, prepare for litigation, and provide support to our exoneree community.

Donations can be made at  https://www.georgiainnocenceproject.org/act/donate/ or by texting GIP  to 41444. 

Finally, I ask you to please stay plugged into what is happening with Joey, Sonny, and all of the rest of our clients. Public engagement in wrongful convictions helps to bring the problems with our criminal legal system out of the shadows and into the light. Thank you for keeping yourself educated and for educating others as well.

As with Lee, Joey, and Sonny, we will never give up the fight against injustice. We are grateful for your help in bringing these men and all of Georgia’s wrongfully incarcerated people home.

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