The Georgia Supreme Court has unanimously affirmed habeas relief for Joey Watkins, who was convicted of murder in Floyd County in 2001, vacating his conviction and granting him a new trial.
The state had appealed an April ruling by a Walker County judge overturning the conviction.
However, the ruling does not mean Watkins will be released just yet. The state can still ask the Supreme Court of Georgia to reconsider its decision. The state has 10 days to file a motion for reconsideration, according to a statement from the Georgia Innocence Project.
Watkins was convicted of the Jan. 11, 2000, shooting death of Isaac Dawkins near what is now Georgia Highlands College. He and another man were arrested nearly 10 months after the shooting and Watkins was subsequently convicted. Watkins’ codefendant was tried separately and acquitted on all charges.
Watkins unsuccessfully appealed his conviction several times, but in 2017 attorneys with the Georgia Innocence Project filed a civil petition — referred to as a habeas corpus — to have his conviction overturned.
In April of this year, by showing new evidence of violations of his constitutional rights, Watkins was successful — with Walker County Superior Court Judge Don W. Thompson issuing an order.
Judge Thompson outlined several reasons in that order.
One being that the court violated Watkins’ sixth amendment rights to confront witnesses against him, in this instance a juror in his own trial.
Prosecutors had argued that cellphone location evidence proved Watkins was in the area of the shooting, while the defense said it proved he was not.
The question of juror misconduct came to light in 2016 after a juror came forward about conducting a driving experiment to test the cellphone location evidence. The juror said they based their decision to convict Watkins, at least partially, on that test.
Jurors are supposed to make a determination of guilt in a trial based solely on evidence presented in court.
Judge Thompson also wrote that during the 2001 trial, prosecutors under former district attorney Tami Colston failed to disclose potentially exculpatory evidence concerning the caliber of a bullet used to kill a dog that was left near Dawkins’ grave. During the trial, prosecutors argued that Watkins shot the dog, potentially with the same gun used to kill Dawkins, and left the dog’s body near the grave.
However, the bullet found in the dog was .22-caliber, different than the one used to shoot Dawkins.
“The court finds that the grave dog evidence was particularly damaging to Mr. Watkins because it was the strongest foundation for the state’s argument that Dawkins’ death was a personal, hate-driven murder as opposed to what the rest of the evidence suggested: a random road rage killing,” the judge wrote.
On Tuesday, the Georgia Supreme Court issued its ruling to grant habeas relief based on Watkins’ juror-misconduct claim.
“Because that ground alone warrants habeas relief, we need not address the remaining grounds on appeal,” the ruling states.