Murder charges dropped after fight to exonerate Georgia man who spent 22 years behind bars


ROME, Ga. (AP) — A judge dismissed a murder charge against a Georgia man who spent more than 20 years in prison, ending a decadeslong legal fight to exonerate him.

The Floyd County judge dismissed the case at the request of the district attorney, who decided not to bring Joey Watkins to trial again after his initial conviction was vacated. The Georgia Innocence Project and other attorneys waged a lengthy fight to overturn the conviction.

Watkins and his attorneys said they wept as they called him to say the charges were being dropped.

“Cried like a baby I guess you could say, just knowing that it was finally finished, finally over,” Watkins told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Watkins, now 43, was 20 when he was convicted and sentenced to serve life plus five years in prison for the 2000 slaying of Isaac Dawkins in northwest Georgia. Dawkins was driving his truck along a highway when someone opened fire and shot him in the head.

The Georgia Supreme Court in December agreed with a judge that Watkins should have a new trial, and a judge in January agreed to release him from jail on bond as he awaited his second trial date.

The district attorney’s office filed a motion to drop the prosecution, and a judge granted the request on Thursday, according to the Georgia Innocence Project.

Christina Cribbs, senior attorney with the Georgia Innocence Project, said Watkins won the new trial request based on issues with juror misconduct and other factors. But she said cellphone data shows that he was not near Dawkins.

After spending more than half his life behind bars, Watkins said he is trying to adjust and rebuild his life.

"Everything that you knew is different. Places. People. It's just like time stops and restarts," he said. “I'm just grateful at another chance of life.”

Cribbs said that while it is joyful to see Watkins released, there is a lot of "sadness there too about what was lost."

"There is no way Joey can get those 22 years back," Cribbs said.