Meagan Hurley, an assistant professor at Mercer Law School, hugs Joey Watkins after his bond hearing in January. Photo courtesy of the Georgia Innocence Project
A Georgia man is now free and cleared of murder charges after fighting for 22 years to prove his innocence. Joey Watkins was exonerated in Floyd County on Sept. 21, and a Mercer Law School professor and two students are part of the defense team that fought for his release.
In 2001, 20-year-old Watkins was sentenced to life in prison for the shooting death of 21-year-old Isaac Dawkins in Rome. According to the Georgia Innocence Project, a nonprofit law firm that specializes in post-conviction work on behalf of wrongdoers, the conviction came despite an alibi confirmed by cellphone records and multiple people and no evidence identifying him with the one in the shooting Connecting a car results in convicted people. The Georgia Innocence Project became involved in the Watkins case around 2014.
Meagan Hurley, a 2019 Mercer Law School graduate, joined Watkins’ legal team as an attorney with the Georgia Innocence Project and continued her involvement when she took over the school’s Habeas Project clinic this summer. Volunteer attorneys Ben Goldberg and Noah Pines are also serving as co-counsel for Watkins, along with Christina Cribbs of the Georgia Innocence Project.
Joey Watkins. Photo courtesy of the Georgia Innocence Project
The Habeas Project, created in 2006, allows third-year law students to work with clients on cases under close faculty supervision, and students Daniel Farnham and Eesha Kumar assisted Hurley in researching Watkins’ case. The clinic focuses on post-conviction proceedings in which a prisoner can present evidence of constitutional violations and other errors that may not have been proven at trial, such as evidence of innocence, misconduct or poor advocacy.
“(Hurley) brought this case as a learning opportunity,” said Sarah Gerwig, a law professor at Mercer and founder of the Habeas Project. “We agreed that this was exactly the type of case that students should work on and work on. There are fascinating, current legal topics. There are opportunities for students to make a difference. There are options for co-counseling. Aside from the merits of the case, we viewed this as a win from an educational perspective.”
After numerous lawsuits and setbacks, Watkins’ case gained national attention when the crime podcast Undisclosed examined it in 2016. Cellphone evidence was critical to proving Watkins’ innocence, but that evidence formed the basis of allegations in previous post-conviction proceedings and could not be reheard in a second habeas petition by the Georgia Innocence Project, Hurley said.
Working with the Georgia Innocence Project, Undisclosed exposed juror misconduct surrounding the cell phone evidence and official misconduct in the 2001 trial, giving Watkins a path back to court. The Georgia Innocence Project filed a habeas petition based on that evidence that same year, but procedural hurdles prevented the new evidence from being heard in court until spring 2022.
The presiding judge of the Supreme Court ruled in April 2022 to grant the habeas petition, overturning Watkins’ 2001 conviction, but the attorney general’s office appealed that decision to the Georgia Supreme Court. That court upheld the order quashing Joey’s conviction in December, and he was released on bail in January. However, the district attorney planned to re-charge Watkins with murder.
“I could see in this habeas (trial) that there was a real chance that I could win,” Watkins said in an Oct. 3 interview with The Den. “That changed my attitude. I knew my case was strong.”
From left: Law student Eesha Kumar, Mercer Law School Assistant Professor Meagan Hurley and law student Daniel Farnham. Photo by Maggie Reimer
Law students Farnham and Kumar said they reviewed thousands of pages of notes and transcripts to keep abreast of the case, wrote legal memos and linked the facts with their research to ensure arguments at trial were coherent .
“Looking through all the documents and files, you could really see that this was a pretty major miscarriage of justice and that Joey was objectively innocent of the charge and the conviction,” Farnham said.
Hurley said the students’ research would have been crucial to the case for a retrial.
“We were actively preparing for a retrial that was scheduled to take place in November. “We would have been ready,” she said. “We have always believed that this was a genuine case of innocence. There are cell phone records that indicate Joey could not have been at the scene where Isaac Dawkins was murdered. The DA’s office … ultimately concluded that there was no evidence to support a retrial. “Two weeks ago, the DA’s office signed a document called “Nolle Prosequi” dismissing the charges against Joey, leading to his exoneration.”
Floyd County Superior Court Judge Bryan Johnson, a 2009 Mercer School of Law graduate, signed the dismissal notice.
While Farnham and Kumar were in their office at Mercer Law School, Hurley and her team called Watkins on Sept. 21 to tell him the good news.
“It was overwhelming. So many emotions went through me. Words cannot describe it. I didn’t expect (that call). “The last few weeks I’ve really been mentally preparing myself for the trial,” said Watkins, who called his lawyers his heroes and biggest supporters. “It hasn’t fully dawned on me yet that I’m free. It feels different. Just knowing in the back of my mind that I can actually do what I need to do or want to do – I’m grateful.”
Kumar, who wants to become a prosecutor, said it was surreal and humbling to be on the call.
“For me, it was definitely the most memorable moment of my law school so far,” said Farnham, who wants to become a criminal defense attorney. “It was quite an emotional moment and I’m left out of it. I can’t imagine what that meant to Joey.”
Farnham said being involved in this case showed him that lawyers have the opportunity and ability to completely change someone’s life. He also recognized the importance of fighting back when justice is not served and clients are not adequately represented.
When it comes to wrongful convictions, the legal system has failed both the defendant and the victim, Gerwig said. That’s why it’s so important that processes are followed correctly the first time.
Mercer law students Daniel Farnham and Eesha Kumar are shown during a Habeas Project class session. Photo by Maggie Reimer
“This post-conviction work gives you a deeper understanding of the system you work in, because not everything is black and white,” Kumar said. “Many things are like that, but when it comes down to it, we have to work against the system to make it better.”
Watkins said the law students’ words and views were encouraging.
“If Eesha wants to be a prosecutor and goes about it with the right attitude, it could save lives,” he said. “This is a little hope in a realm of darkness. I’m grateful for that. That’s great.”
Vindication in the court system is “joyful and triumphant,” and these law students will carry the lessons they learned with them throughout their careers, Gerwig said.
“In post-conviction work, you have to hold on to those victories and sometimes learn how to redefine a victory because the victories are so rare,” Gerwig said. “This could help ensure that a student can stay in that work post-conviction during a dark time when they are questioning whether their work is making a difference. Building a connection with a customer, standing by them and believing in them is good in itself.”
Hurley said Watkins’ ongoing case has had a major impact on the direction of her legal career. Living near Rome, she heard about the case as a child, which led her to listen to the 2016 podcast and later apply for an internship at the Georgia Innocence Project and the Habeas Project clinic as a law student. She began law school with the intention of becoming a public defender, but discovered that she really enjoyed post-conviction work.
“I am very grateful to the team and community we worked for, including Joey. He was an integral part of the team and an advocate for himself,” Hurley said. “I think he probably taught all of us a lot more than we could even put into words. I’m just so proud of everything the students did in this case and of Joey and our co-counsel. We are absolutely thrilled that he is finally free. This was a travesty of justice from the start. It never should have taken this long, but thankfully we’re finally here and I’m really excited to see all the amazing things Joey will do with his life in the future.”
Watkins said he hopes to travel and see the world once he gets used to it and is back on his feet. He taught himself Spanish and Portuguese in prison, and Brazil is at the top of his travel list. A talented musician, he will continue to play guitar and write music.
“Hopefully in the next three weeks I can put my feet in the sand and see the sea,” he said. “I want to set off on Route 66 and see where it takes me – just travel, just be free.”
Joey Watkins (center) hugs his parents after being released from prison on bail in January 2023.
Joey Watkins (center) is seen with Mercer Law School assistant professor Meagan Hurley (right) and other members of his legal team after being released from prison on bail in January 2023. Photos courtesy of the Georgia Innocence Project