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Georgia Supreme Court Reverses Dismissal of Second State Habeas Petition

The Supreme Court of Georgia reversed the Walker County Superior Court’s dismissal of Joseph Samuel Watkins’ second petition for writ of habeas corpus.

Watkins was convicted in 2001 of felony murder, and his conviction was affirmed on appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court in 2003. Watkins subsequently filed a petition for habeas corpus, which was denied. The Georgia Supreme Court also denied his petition for probable cause to appeal in 2012. Then in 2017, Watkins filed a second state habeas petition. Therein, he alleged a claim of juror misconduct and a claim that the State failed to disclose exculpatory evidence, as well as allowed a witness to testify falsely about the existence of the evidence.

In support of the claimed juror misconduct, Watkins provided an affidavit from the juror that revealed the juror had conducted her own timed-drive experiment to the crime scene despite the trial court’s instructions that she not do so. The juror stated that prior to her timed-drive experiment, she and another juror were “leaning towards acquittal.” The experiment removed her reasonable doubt, and she — along with the other holdout juror — voted to convict. She further stated that in 2016 she told an investigative reporter about her experiment, and in 2017, she told the Georgia Innocence Project (“GIP”) about it. Watkins argued that the juror’s misconduct resulted in a conviction obtained by improperly obtained evidence. Bobo v. State, 327 S.E.2d 208 (Ga. 1985).

The second claim involved the testimony of a crime lab manager concerning a dead dog that had allegedly been placed on the victim’s grave. The witness testified that he and a colleague — who had since moved to Pennsylvania and was unable to testify — determined, based on an X-ray, that the dog had been shot between the eyes. During a bench conference, the prosecutor asserted that the bullet had not been removed from the dog’s skull and that the State did not “know what kind of bullet it [was].” The State argued that Watkins had placed the dog on the grave as a “calling card” to send a message to the family that he (Watkins) was responsible for the murder.

Beginning in 2014, the GIP began submitting Open Records Act requests seeking information about the dead dog. An attorney from the GIP was able to locate the colleague — not in Pennsylvania but in Alabama — who disclosed that the bullet had been removed from the dog. The removed bullet was of a different caliber than the bullet that killed the murder victim. Further, all of the testing on the dog had been filed under a case number that was different from the case number assigned to Watkins’ case, explaining why the open records requests had been unsuccessful. Watkins alleged that had this information been known to his trial attorneys, they would have objected to the testimony as being prejudicial and irrelevant.

The Superior Court dismissed Watkins’s second habeas petition as “untimely” under OCGA § 9-14-42(c)(4) and “successive” under OCGA § 9-14-51. According to the Superior Court, Watkins could have discovered the facts underlying these claims if his attorneys had exercised due diligence and then presented these claims in the first petition. The Georgia The Supreme Court granted Watkins’ application for a certificate of probable cause to appeal.

The Court observed that OCGA § 9-14-42(c)(4) provides that a claim raised in a habeas petition must be raised within four years of “the date on which the facts supporting the claims presented could have been discovered through the exercise of due diligence.” Mitchum v. State, 834 S.E.2d 65 (Ga. 2019). And with respect to habeas corpus petitions challenging convictions that occurred before July 1, 2004, a petitioner may avoid dismissal based on respondent’s claimed prejudicial delay if the petitioner can show “by a preponderance of the evidence that [the petition] is based on grounds of which he or she could not have had knowledge by the exercise of reasonable diligence before the circumstances prejudicial to the respondent occurred.” Flint v. State, 701 S.E.2d 174 (Ga. 2010).

The Court determined that Watkins’ attorneys who prepared his first petition had no reason to investigate the juror because the attorneys were entitled to rely on the presumption that the juror had obeyed the trial court’s instructions not to drive to the crime scene. Favors v. State, 825 S.E.2d 164 (Ga. 2019).

With regard to the second claim concerning the bullet recovered from the dog, the Court first determined that because the State bore a duty to disclose the evidence but failed to do so, then the failure of trial counsel to discover the evidence could not be attributed to lack of due diligence. Whatley v. Terry, 668 S.E.2d 651 (Ga. 2008). Second, Watkins’ attorneys had a right to rely on the accuracy of the lab manager’s testimony since the truth or falsity of the testimony was within the knowledge of the State, and the State is under a duty to reveal false testimony. Id.

The Court concluded that Watkins had alleged facts showing grounds for relief that could not reasonably have been raised in his original habeas petition or discovered by reasonable exercise of due diligence, so he was entitled to an evidentiary hearing on those allegations.

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