Wrongfully convicted man walks free after more than 2 decades as podcast shed light on his murder case

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A Georgia man who was wrongfully convicted of murder in 2001 walked free last week, and a podcast is being credited with helping to bring attention to his case.

“All this weight has been lifted,” Joey Watkins said in a Sept. 22 statement. “I can’t even begin to express what I feel like right now. I’m finally an adult. I’m free.”

Watkins was initially accused of fatally shooting Isaac Dawkins, 21, while he was driving on a highway in Rome, Georgia, on Jan. 11, 2000, one year after the incident occurred. 

Prosecutors pointed to Watkins as the alleged driver of a small, blue car that was involved in the shooting. 

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Joey Watkins hugs his mother and father in court

“All this weight has been lifted,” Joey Watkins said in a statement. “I can’t even begin to express what I feel like right now. I’m finally an adult. I’m free.” (Georgia Innocence Project)

He was sentenced to life in prison despite having an alibi that his defense team confirmed through phone records and several people, according to the Georgia Innocence Project (GIP), which advocates for the wrongly convicted.

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Mark Free, the alleged shooter in Dawkins’ death and passenger in the small, blue car, was tried separately and acquitted on all charges, according to GIP.

Isaac Dawkins' crashed truck

Watkins was initially accused of fatally shooting Isaac Dawkins, 21, while he was driving on a highway in Rome, Georgia, on Jan. 11, 2000, one year after the incident occurred. (Georgia Innocence Project)

Watkins maintained his innocence for over 22 years, and in April 2022, Walker County Superior Court Judge Don Thompson overturned his conviction, therefore granting Watkins a new trial.

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The Supreme Court of Georgia unanimously affirmed Thompson’s ruling in December 2022, and Watkins was released on bond in January 2023. He was officially exonerated on Sept. 21 after the Floyd County district attorney decided not to pursue further charges against him.

Joey Wakins' mugshot taken in 2000

Joey Watkins has maintained his innocence over 22 years, and in April 2022, Walker County Superior Court Judge Don Thompson overturned his conviction, granting Watkins a new trial. (Georgia Innocence Project)

“Words cannot describe how grateful I am,” Watkins said.

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Watkins received national support after his case was featured on the “Undisclosed” podcast, according to the GIP.

A split image of Watkins in court for his sentencing in 2001 and Watkins in court during his exoneration in 2023

Watkins received national support after his case was featured on the “Undisclosed” podcast, according to the GIP. (Georgia Innocence Project)

The podcast “investigates wrongful convictions, and the U.S. criminal justice system, by taking a closer look at the perpetration of a crime, its investigation, the trial, and ultimate verdict… and finding new evidence that never made it to court,” according to the “Undisclosed” website.

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“We are very grateful, not only to our amazing co-counsel Ben Goldberg, Noah Pines and Meagan Hurley, but also that the prosecuting attorney exercised her discretion to do justice in this case and right the wrong of Joey’s 22 years of wrongful imprisonment,” GIP senior attorney Christina Cribbs said in a Sept. 22 statement.

Georgia is one of 12 states that does not offer financial compensation to the wrongly convicted, according to a GoFundMe page for Watkins titled “Joey Watkins – Exonerated and Free After 22 Years.”

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Since his release earlier this year, Watkins has been spending time at home with his family and working at his family’s used car business, Watkins Auto, according to the GoFundMe.



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