A Floyd County man has been granted the opportunity to present his argument to a judge that he should be able to challenge his 2001 murder conviction based on new evidence.
In a decision published March 13, Georgia’s high court ruled a judge in the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit erred in dismissing a civil petition filed by Joey Watkins’ attorneys seeking to have his conviction overturned on the grounds it was too late to bring his claims.
Watkins, who was convicted in Floyd County of the 2000 murder of Isaac Dawkins, had his case remanded back to the lower court where he should have a hearing to decide if any new evidence is substantial enough to trigger a new trial, according to the decision written by Justice Michael P. Boggs.
The decision goes on to state that Watkins’ allegations that the state failed to disclose exculpatory evidence in its files is a “significant factor.”
The habeas corpus petition was filed in 2017 and was originally dismissed in Walker County — the county in which Watkins is incarcerated. That dismissal was appealed and the case ended up at the Georgia Supreme Court.
In the trial, evidence indicated Watkins’ cellphone was used to show his whereabouts at the time of the murder.
One part of the petition focuses on the actions of a juror who later admitted that during the trial she did her own tests by driving around the area of the crime despite instructions from the court not to, which influenced her decision.
The Watkins case has been the subject of the Undisclosed audio podcast series, which attempts to find new witnesses and evidence to help people believed to have been wrongly convicted.
The juror revealed her actions during an interview for the podcast in 2016.
“Watkins’ juror misconduct claim is supported by a juror’s affidavit,” Boggs wrote. “The juror testified that after one day of deliberations, she and one other juror were ‘leaning towards acquittal’ based largely on the cellphone evidence presented by the defense.”
The Georgia Supreme Court’s decision cited a ruling where there was a possibility that improper evidence collected by jurors had contributed to a conviction, but declines to address if the juror’s claims should trigger a new trial.
It does note the state’s claims that Watkins’ petition be dismissed on the grounds of lack of due diligence are unfounded, stating “Watkins has made a sufficient showing at this stage that he could not have discovered the facts underlying his jury misconduct claim at an earlier time through the exercise of due or reasonable diligence.”
Another part of the petition is the argument that the state withheld evidence concerning a dog found near Dawkins’ grave nearly two months after his death, according to the defense.
The prosecutor asserted that Watkins shot the dog in the head and placed it on Dawkins’ grave. But the petition filed claims at that time the prosecuting attorney said no reports had been generated and the bullet was not extracted.
With the help of the Georgia Innocence Project, Watkins’ defense alleges there was a report from a medical examiner and the bullet had been extracted from the dog, finding that the caliber of bullet in grave dog did not match the caliber of bullet used in the murder.
“The habeas court found that Watkins could have discovered these facts under the Open Records Act in 2003, because the files were ‘available for public inspection’ pursuant to statute on or about August 17, 2003, when Watkins’ convictions became ‘final,’” Boggs wrote.
“Watkins, however, has alleged repeated Open Records Act requests, which were unsuccessful for a period of years not because of any lack of diligence on his part, but because the information concerning this claim was misfiled and not linked to other documents concerning Watkins’ case.”