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Joseph Watkins

Other Georgia Exonerations
Just after 7 p.m., on January 11, 2000, Wayne Benson was driving north on U.S. 27, about a half mile north of Floyd College in Rome, Georgia, when he saw a small blue car driving erratically and interacting with a white pickup. He lost sight of the vehicles for a brief moment. About a mile later, Benson saw “a flash of some kind.” The truck drove across the median into the southbound lanes and then went off into the shoulder.

Benson called 911 at 7:19 p.m. to report the accident. The driver of the truck, 20-year-old Isaac Dawkins, was taken to the hospital and died the next day.

The police initially investigated the case as a one-car traffic accident, but that changed after a scan at the hospital found a bullet in Dawkins’s head. Later, police recovered a 9 mm cartridge near the crime scene and a bullet fragment from inside Dawkins’s truck that had markings consistent with being fired from a 9 mm handgun.

The Rome Police Department began interviewing Dawkins’s friends and family, asking about any enemies or conflicts. They mentioned 19-year-old Joseph “Joey” Watkins. Dawkins had dated Brianne Scarbrough after she and Watkins broke up.

Yvonne Agan told investigators that Dawkins said Watkins had chased him and fired a gun at him a few months earlier. She said she urged him to call the police, but Dawkins declined because by then he was no longer dating Scarbrough and believed his problem with Watkins had resolved itself.

Police interviewed Watkins. He said that at the time of the shooting, he was driving from his house in Rome—in his own white pickup—to his girlfriend’s house in Cedartown, more than 30 minutes away. The girlfriend said that Watkins arrived in his truck around 8 p.m. In addition, Watkins had used his cellphone to call the girlfriend at 7:15 p.m., and they spoke for about four minutes. The call was connected from a tower near Watkins’s house, which was about seven miles from where Benson first saw the blue car interacting with Dawkins’s truck.

With Watkins seemingly eliminated as a suspect, the case went cold. Dawkins’s family then asked to have Sergeant Stanley Sutton with the Floyd County Police assigned to the investigation. In November 2000, a few days after Sutton told the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) that there was “no evidence” on which to base an arrest, Watkins was arrested and charged with murder. His friend, Mark Free, was also arrested.

Watkins went to trial in June 2001 in Floyd County Superior Court. There was no forensic or physical evidence tying him to the crime scene. The state presented numerous witnesses who testified about the bad blood between Watkins and Dawkins. A woman named Tiffany Sledge said that Watkins told her he would “get” Dawkins “if it was the last thing he had to do and kill him.” Watkins’s attorneys questioned whether her testimony was aimed at helping her boyfriend reduce his exposure to drug charges.

Winford Ellis, who was in jail with Watkins, had told investigators that Watkins said the police were dragging the wrong lake in their search for the murder weapon. At trial, he recanted those statements and said he made it all up. Another jailhouse informant, Corey Jacobs said he heard Watkins brag in a Home Depot parking lot about shooting Dawkins. His testimony was undermined because he said he went to high school with Watkins but they attended different high schools. Another witness, Josh Flemister had told police that Watkins asked him to provide an alibi. At trial, he testified that he had lied because the police intimidated him.

Agan testified about the alleged incident between Dawkins and Watkins that she said Dawkins told her about in late 1999.

Barry Mullinax, who had been in a jail diversion center with Free, testified that he had seen Watkins shoot into Dawkins’s truck from a green or blue car on January 11. He had come forward with this account a few months after the shooting. But his testimony was discredited under cross-examination, because Mullinax couldn’t remember who was in the car with him or why he didn’t stop or tell anyone about what he saw. A court would later write, “it appeared that he was actually describing a different shooting that occurred on Highway 20 West around the same time.” The state also appeared to discount Mullinax’s testimony, referring to him as a witness, “for whatever that’s worth.”

Watkins had told his girlfriend that he had seen Dawkins’s truck on the highway’s shoulder as he drove to Cedartown. (He had commented that Dawkins had been killed.) The state presented photos of the crime scene and said that Watkins would have been unable to identify Dawkins’s truck from the highway, suggesting his involvement in the shooting.

Prior to the trial, the state gave notice that it wanted to introduce evidence about the remains of a dog that Sammy Dawkins found near his son’s grave in February 2000. Watkins’s attorneys objected, and Assistant District Attorney Tami Colston said the evidence was relevant because the shooting was Watkins’s “signature” and also related to the shooting of the Dawkins’s family dog in the fall of 1999, which she referred to as another “signature” by Watkins. Judge Walter Matthews admitted the evidence, stating that it showed the murder was “personal rather than impersonal.”

Dawkins testified that he noticed the remains, which were in a garbage bag, after seeing his son’s grave covered in flies. None of the other graves had the same problem, he said. He placed the remains inside two more bags and left them near a creek, only to retrieve the bag about nine months later. He testified that he looked inside, saw the dog had been shot between the eyes, and turned the animal’s body over to the county police.

Francis Jarvis, a GBI firearms examiner, testified that he examined the carcass along with a pathologist “and we were asked to see if there was [sic] any bullets or anything found in the remains.” Jarvis said the pathologist had not prepared a report, but an X-ray had been taken. Colston sought to introduce the X-ray into evidence, and Watkins’s attorneys objected again, saying they were entitled to 10 days’ notice of any scientific evidence.

Judge Matthews asked Colston whether a bullet was recovered. She said no, that the examiners at the GBI crime laboratory saw the bullet on the X-ray but made no effort to remove or examine it.

Judge Matthews said that Jarvis could not testify about the results of the X-ray. Instead, Jarvis testified that the forensic team at the lab examined the animal’s carcass, looked for bullets, and took an X-ray.

Two witnesses testified that they had heard from Watkins’s co-defendant, Mark Free, that Watkins was involved in the shooting of the dog. Free denied making either statement.

Benson testified about what he saw as he drove north on U.S. 27 on the night of January 11, 2000. He said he first spotted Dawkins’s truck and a blue car about a half-mile north of the college. He then saw them at a traffic light about 1.5 miles away. Benson said he had to stop for the light, and then saw the two vehicles about a third of a mile away. A short while later, the truck ran off the divided highway and ended up on the shoulder of the southbound lines. Benson then called 911.

Mark Bahn, an engineer with Verizon, had helped design the cell-tower infrastructure in Floyd County and testified as the state’s expert witness. He testified that there were three towers that served the Rome area; the reach of the Kingston Tower—which Watkins’s cellphone used to make the call at 7:15 p.m.—extended to within a few miles of where Dawkins was shot. The phone records only showed where the call originated from, not the location of the phone after the call was placed, Bahn said.

During cross-examination, Bahn was asked whether a call could have originated from the Kingston tower in the area a few miles north of the college. He said it couldn’t. But he testified on direct examination that there was an area just north of this location, where the cell towers ran together.

Watkins presented an alibi defense built around the cellphone records and the expert testimony of Dr. Paul Steffes, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Georgia Tech.

Steffes testified that Watkins could not have been near Floyd College, now known as Georgia Highlands College, when he called his girlfriend at 7:15 p.m., because his phone connected with the Kingston tower. Steffes said that even if Watkins was at the edge of the tower’s coverage, closest to the college, he would not have had enough time to get to Dawkins’s location in the four minutes between when Watkins pressed send on the call to his girlfriend and when Benson called 911.

Under cross-examination, Steffes testified that his conclusions were based on “models.”

The state did not present any evidence about the driving conditions or traffic impediments along this route. It also did not explain Watkins’s connection to the blue car and how that squared with testimony from his girlfriend that Watkins arrived alone at her house in his pickup.

During her closing argument, Colston said the time stamps from the cellphones and 911 call were imprecise. A call that was logged at four minutes could be nearly five minutes long, and the 911 call could have been made between 7:19.00 p.m. and 7:19.59 p.m. This wiggle room, Colston said, gave Watkins enough time to drive toward the college, spot Dawkins, and then turn around and shoot him.

Separately, Colston reminded jurors of what Sammy Dawkins saw at the cemetery.

“He goes to his son’s grave and he finds flies, hundreds, and an odor coming up from the grave,” she said. “And then a few months later, they go back and get that dog where he dumped it and they carry it to the crime lab and what was—what had happened to that dog? Executed. Shot right between the eyes and laid out on the grave of Isaac Dawkins. A signature. A signature. A calling card. He couldn’t stand it. He didn’t want to get caught. He didn’t want to incriminate himself, but he sure wanted that family to know that he did this. What kind of hatred does that take? What kind of mind does that take?”

The geography of the case—Floyd College, U.S. 27, the area around the Kingston tower—was familiar to residents of Rome and Floyd County, and Judge Matthews instructed the jury to use only the evidence presented in court. “Listen, don’t go measuring distances or stopping by the scene and investigating on your own,” he said. “Don’t go out there and start measuring things off with your odometer. You have to base your decision in any trial like this on what you hear in the courtroom from the witness stand and you can’t go investigating anything on your own.”

The jury began deliberations on June 30, 2001, a Saturday. It did not meet on Sunday and then returned on Monday, July 2, when it convicted Watkins of felony murder, illegal use of a firearm, and stalking. He received a sentence of life in prison.

Free, who had been charged largely on the basis of jailhouse informants, was acquitted at a separate trial in 2002. At the Free trial, Agan testified that Dawkins had told her Watkins had thrown something at him, not shot at him as she testified at the first trial.

Watkins began a series of appeals. His first motion for a new trial said that Judge Matthews should not have allowed Agan to testify about her conversation with Dawkins, because it was hearsay evidence. The motion also said Judge Matthews erred in limiting what the defense could ask Agan about pending criminal charges. The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed the conviction on May 19, 2003.

In 2003, Mullinax recanted his testimony. The recantation did not play a significant part in legal proceedings.

On April 27, 2004, Watkins filed a petition in state court for a writ of habeas corpus. Amended five years later, the petition said that Watkins was innocent and his attorneys had been ineffective in their failure to secure the precise boundary of the Kingston tower.

The amended petition included an affidavit from Steffes, which said that the attorneys had asked him to consult on the case on June 18, 2001, just a few days before the trial began. Steffes said he went to Rome the next day and reviewed the prosecution’s exhibits. He said he ran some calculations and told the defense and the state that Watkins’s cellphone couldn’t have been within four miles of the crime scene at the time of the 7:15 call, giving Watkins an alibi.

Steffes noted in his affidavit how the prosecutor used the imprecision in the modeling to raise doubt about where the Kingston tower’s coverage ended. He said those issues could have been resolved by direct measurement, and he said he had broached the idea with both sides at the June 19 meeting. “Defense counsel never requested that the measurements be conducted,” he said.

In January 2009, Steffes conducted those tests. “These new measurements verify that, beyond any doubt, that at the initiation of the telephone call which began on January 11, 2000 at 7:15 p.m. from the defendant’s cellular telephone, the cellphone in question could not have been in the vicinity (within 4 miles) of the scene of the murder for which the defendant was accused,” he said.

On December 20, 2011, Judge Michael Devane of Charlton County Superior Court denied Watkins’s petition. Judge Devane said the jury heard plenty of testimony about how the location of the cellphone tower gave Watkins an alibi and that the attorneys had a reasonable strategy for the evidence they chose to present and not present. The attorneys testified at an evidentiary hearing that Steffes never said he needed to run more tests. Judge Devane wrote that the “transaction evidence” of the “deep-seated animosity” between Watkins and Dawkins was a far more significant factor in the conviction.

In 2012, Watkins filed a federal habeas petition, making similar claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. On February 11, 2013, a magistrate judge for U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia recommended dismissing his petition, agreeing with the state court that the trial attorneys acted reasonably and that Steffes’s new test was cumulative.

In 2016, the Georgia Innocence Project approached Susan Simpson, one of the producers of the Undisclosed podcast, asking her to look into Watkins’s case. During the podcast’s investigation, a juror said that she had ignored Judge Matthews’s instruction about independently examining the evidence.

Dr. Rogena Cordle, a pediatrician, said that she had initially been leaning toward acquittal. When the jury was dismissed after the first day of deliberations, Cordle said in an affidavit, she found herself in the area where the shooting took place. After driving the route Watkins took and timing herself, Cordle concluded that it was possible for Watkins to have made it to the area near the college and shoot Dawkins in the few minutes between the two phone calls. “This made reasonable doubt less likely, and the following Monday I voted to convict,” she said.

Separately, attorneys with the Georgia Innocence Project had filed a series of public-records requests for additional records about the dog remains. They located the records in 2016, which indicated that a .22-caliber bullet had been removed from the dog’s body. The evidence from the crime scene suggested Dawkins was shot with a 9 mm handgun.

In January 2017, Watkins filed a second state petition for a writ of habeas corpus that asserted his conviction was tainted by juror misconduct and that the state had failed to turn over exculpatory evidence about the bullet found in the dog. It also said that Jarvis had given false testimony, and that Colston knew the testimony was false but didn’t correct it.

Without holding an evidentiary hearing, Judge Don Thompson of Walker County Superior Court dismissed the petition as untimely. Under Georgia law, defendants generally have four years to raise claims if the evidence to support those claims can be discovered through “due diligence.” Judge Thompson said, “Petitioner 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.”

Watkins appealed. On March 30, 2020, the Georgia Supreme Court reversed the lower court and ordered an evidentiary hearing on Watkins’s claims. The court said due diligence didn’t require Watkins to interview every juror on the case when there had been no suggestion of juror impropriety during the trial.

The pathology records regarding the dog had been filed under a case number not linked to other GBI documents in the Watkins file. An investigator with the Georgia Innocence Project had received that case number from the pathologist who produced the report and had since moved to Pennsylvania. He kept a personal log of autopsies. “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,” the court said.

During the evidentiary hearing before Judge Thompson, Cordle testified about her crime-scene investigation. In her affidavit, Cordle had said she didn’t share the results of her test with other jurors. But Watkins’s attorneys later found evidence that Cordle told at least one other juror. At the evidentiary hearing, Cordle said she told another “holdout” juror, and two other jurors testified they also remembered hearing something about Cordle’s experiment.

On April 11, 2022, Judge Thompson granted Watkins’s habeas petition and ordered a new trial. He said that Cordle’s misconduct had tainted the conviction and that the state failed to turn over the exculpatory evidence. He also said that Jarvis had presented false or misleading evidence regarding the examination of the dog and that Colston knew this testimony was false or misleading.

Judge Thompson said that if the defense had known that the bullet recovered from the dog was unconnected to the weapon used on Dawkins, it would have moved to exclude any testimony about the dog or at the very least been able to show the tenuous nature of the state’s evidence.

“The grave dog evidence stood out among the state’s evidence because of its emotional impact, the way it portrayed Mr. Watkins as a violent and depraved person, and because of the factual inference it allowed jurors to draw,” Judge Thompson said.

Judge Thompson said that Jarvis’s testimony was “incomplete and evasive,” and “highly misleading to the jury.” He said that Jarvis testified falsely that the medical examiner had not prepared a report on the animal.

Judge Thompson also said that although Colston might not have had direct knowledge that Jarvis was testifying falsely, she should have known. She was aware that an X-ray was taken and would later testify at the habeas hearing that she probably asked about the bullet when she first saw the picture. In addition, Jarvis had actually brought the bullet to the trial and given it to someone in the district attorney’s office.

The state appealed Judge Thompson’s ruling, claiming among other errors, that he was wrong in finding that Cordle shared her results with other jurors. The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed the decision on December 20, 2022. It said that it didn’t matter whether Cordle shared anything with her fellow jury members. “Watkins has still shown actual prejudice because there is no dispute that the extra-judicial information here was introduced to and affected at least one juror: Cordle herself,” the court wrote. “A guilty verdict in a criminal case requires a unanimous vote.”

Because the court agreed that the juror misconduct necessitated a new trial, it did not rule on Watkins’s other claims.

Watkins was released from prison on January 3, 2023. The state dismissed the case on September 21, 2023.

“Part of why we're here today is that in 2012 the Georgia Legislature changed the evidence code in Georgia,” said Ben Goldberg, one of Watkins’s attorneys. He said that the state’s decision to hew more closely to federal rules of evidence would preclude the state’s use of any evidence about the dogs or Watkins’s generally bad behavior in the months preceding the shooting.

“A lot of evidence that was admissible in his original trial is no longer admissible,” Goldberg said. “I’m hopeful Joey and his family can start the healing process.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 10/17/2023
Last Updated: 10/17/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Other Violent Felony, Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:2000
Age at the date of reported crime:19
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No