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In conversation with the Georgia Innocence Project

Posted on 10 June 2019

In Conversation with the Georgia Innocence Project

Around once a month, Mishcon de Reya invites leading thinkers, social discourse disruptors and industry changers to speak at The Academy, our in-house platform for growing and learning.

In February, we had the privilege of sitting down with Clare Gilbert, Executive Director at the Georgia Innocence Project (GIP), a non-profit organisation dedicated to helping individuals convicted of crimes they did not commit.

GIP works to secure post-conviction DNA testing for Georgia and Alabama inmates where DNA analysis could prove guilt or innocence and adequate DNA testing was not available at trial. Since its inception, GIP has received more than 7,100 requests for assistance.

That number suggests that for all of its advancements and achievements, the US criminal justice system is not without its faults. Popularised by podcasts such as Serial, which explores the case of Adnan Sayed's incarceration following the murder of his ex-girlfriend, and the popular Netflix series Making a Murderer, the public's attention has been shifted to the number of often glaringly wrongful convictions handed out to people of all walks of life, robbing them of years of freedom and their ability to contribute to society.

Clare spoke to us about the case of Joey Watkins who was convicted of murder in 2001 and sentenced to life plus six years in prison. A year earlier, Georgia police responded to a reported single vehicle accident on Highway 27 but a few hours later, x-rays revealed that the driver, 21 year old Isaac Dawkins, had been shot in the head. Isaac's friends and family pointed to 19 year old Joey Watkins as a suspect, who had previous run ins with Isaac over a girl that they had both dated. After an initial investigation, Joey was ruled out as a suspect partly because of his alibi – he had been seen by a number of witnesses at his girlfriend Aislinn's house that evening, 30 miles away from the scene of the crime. This was corroborated by cell phone tower evidence.

Unsatisfied with slow progress in the case, Issac's parents petitioned to have their friend, sergeant Stanley Sutton, assigned to Isaac's case. Sutton immediately zeroed back in on Joey, and posted a $15,000 reward in the local jail, seeking informers. The first one surfaced hours later.

The cold facts of the case are that it takes 45 minutes to drive from Joey's house to Aislinn's but at the trial, the State claimed that in that time Joey swapped cars, picked up his friend Mark, drove north on Highway 27, spotted Isaac's car driving south, made a u-turn and had Mark shoot him while driving 55 miles an hour. Joey then supposedly dropped off Mark, swapped cars again and drove to Aislinn's house, all in 45 minutes while on the phone to Aislinn, who didn't hear a thing.

Despite the implausibility of the State's case, and the lack of any supporting evidence connecting Joey to the crime, he was found guilty of murder along with his friend Mark. This begs the question of why the system is failing people this badly, and whether it comes down to negligence, or worse, malice?

Clare maintains that malice would be hard to imagine and harder to prove, so in cases of wrongful conviction it must be one of the following factors: cognitive or racial bias, incentivised witnesses or prosecutorial misconduct.

The Georgia Innocence project estimates that there are around 1,500 people wrongfully imprisoned in Georgia. Often in these cases, the fight for justice is contained to the community but exposure through social media and broadcast series is educating the public about the prevalence of these types of failings in the criminal justice system.

This also provokes the question of whether more private practice lawyers should lend their skills and time to this type of work on a pro bono basis. There are 70 Innocence Projects across the world and the UK branch is based at the University of Greenwich.

If you'd like to find out more, visit the Innocent Project webpage, or to hear more about Joey Watkin's case, listen to the Undisclosed podcast.

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