On July 2nd, 2001, a Georgia jury convicted Joey Watkins, 20, of felony murder, aggravated assault, weapons violation and misdemeanor stalking for the January 2000 death of 20-year-old Isaac Dawkins. Watkins was sentenced to life in prison plus five years, a stiff penalty recommended by District Attorney Tami Colston.
“He has shown a pattern of conduct that demonstrates a total disregard for human rights,” the judge stated before sentencing. “Where there is no remorse there should be no mercy.”
According to Watkins, it’s not a lack of remorse, but a refusal to take responsibility for a crime he says that he did not commit.
“I had nothing to do with it – nothing, and I will say it till the day I die,” Watkins said before the court, prior to sentencing. “They can send me to prison but I just want the family to know that justice has not been done. I prayed every night and day that the truth would come out. I had no reason to do this – none. I will be back in court because I’m not guilty of this.”
Since then, Watkins’ case has hit a dead end and he has very few legal options left, despite earning the advocacy of the Georgia Innocence Project (GIP), which seeks to exonerate prisoners who they believe have been falsely convicted. Earlier this month, however, Watkins’ quest to prove his innocence shifted tactics, stepping out of the courtroom and onto the airwaves; his case would be getting the podcast treatment as the subject of the second season of Undisclosed.
Undisclosed launched in early 2015, on the heels of the hugely successful first season of Serial, and focused on everything Sarah Koenig and her team missed about the Adnan Syed case. Hosted by a trio of lawyers – Rabia Chaudry (Syed’s family friend and longtime advocate), Susan Simpson and Colin Miller – the podcast took a deep dive in the case files, essentially investigating the investigation that led to Syed’s arrest and conviction for the murder of Hae Min Lee. Their efforts resulted in a revelation about the State’s cellphone evidence, earning Syed a post-conviction relief hearing. Last month, a judge overturned Syed’s conviction and granted him a new trial.
For Season Two, the Undisclosed team – which now includes Emmy winner and vocal Syed supporter Jon Cryer – is investigating Watkins’ case. It was brought to their attention since December 2015 by his attorneys at GIP – an important factor in selecting his case as the focus of their second season.
“The GIP has so many cases to support, and they have felt so strongly about Joey’s case that for years now, they have spent resources intensely on trying to advance it,” Simpson tells Rolling Stone. “Even when there seemed to be dead ends everywhere, they couldn’t give up. They knew he was innocent. This is one of those cases where, on the one hand, he has such overwhelming support for his innocence, but on the other, he’s had so few options legally. It makes you want to tear your hair out. There’s a reason GIP took the chance to bring in an outside media organization to comb through all of their files and to approach witnesses – that’s not the kind of chance you take as an attorney unless you’re damn sure your client is innocent.”
The first episode of Season Two, which debuted on July 11th, was focused largely on detailing the basic case facts and key players before beginning to sort through the police investigation into Dawkins’ murder. Unlike Season One, which hugely benefitted from Serial having provided listeners with 12 episodes of setup – not to mention Chaudry’s decade-plus familiarity with Syed’s case – Season Two has the hosts doing triple duty. First, familiarizing themselves with Watkins’ case; second, bringing readers up to speed; and finally, investigating what actually happened during the months before and after Dawkins was killed.
Here’s what we’ve learned so far: on the right of January 11th, 2000, Isaac Dawkins’ truck was seen veering across several lanes of traffic before slamming into a wooded area off U.S. 27 near Rome, Georgia. What initially looked like a terrible accident was quickly revealed to be far more sinister – Dawkins had been shot in the head. He died the following day.
Watkins’ motive, the prosecution said, was his lingering anger and resentment that Dawkins had briefly dated his ex-girlfriend, Brianne Scarber, from May to September 1999, while Watkins and Scarber were on one of multiple “breaks” during their three-year relationship. Watkins and Scarber briefly dated again during September and October 1999 before breaking up for the last time on October 31. By the time Dawkins was killed in early 2000, both Scarber and Watkins were dating other people, and seemed to have moved on from each other and whatever drama had existed between Watkins and Dawkins that summer.
Immediately after the shooting, Dawkins’ best friend Jay Barnett was the first to tell police that his pal’s only enemy was Watkins, who allegedly had a history of threatening men who dated his on-again, off-again ex. Scarber, who had known Watkins since 5th grade, spoke to police that night as well, and while she said at the time that she hadn’t ever witnessed any interactions between the two young men, she did tell police about Watkins’ temper. She, as well as many of their other friends, would eventually testify for the state at trial.
Not unlike the many WB teen dramas that were so popular at the time, the ties that bound Watkins, Dawkins, Scarber and the 10 or so others in their circle were always shifting. (So much so, that Undisclosed put together a handy People Map to keep them all straight.) Scarber – after dating Dawkins and then getting back together with Watkins for a brief last hurrah – was dating a guy named Chad at the time of the murder. Before dating Scarber, Chad – who was also one of Watkins’ good friends – was dating Watkins’ sister Tandi. And Tandi was good friends with not only Scarber, but also Samantha Dawkins, Isaac’s sister. Samantha, meanwhile, had been dating a guy named Paul Allen up until just before the murder. Allen and Watkins’ were once good friends, but were no longer as close by January 2000, though it’s not clear why. There are others too: Josh and Clay, who were friends with both Joey and Tandi Watkins; Shae, whom Watkins’ dated during one of his breaks from Scarber; Marie, who dated Dawkins for a time; and Jessica, who was good friends with Scarber.
Their significance to Watkins’ case will likely become more clear as Undisclosed‘s second season continues, so listeners would be wise to familiarize themselves with the Pacey Witters (Dawson’s Creek) and Mary Camdens (7th Heaven) of this real-life incestuous crew. The stories – some true, some myth, many somewhere in between – which cycled through this complicated web of ever-changing relationships had a direct impact on the police’s decision to investigate Watkins and became the basis for the prosecution’s case against him.
Undisclosed tackled one of these stories in episode one. Almost immediately after the murder, police had good reason to suspect Watkins could be responsible for shooting Dawkins – because according to many of Dawkins’ friends, including Scarber and Barnett, Watkins had tried to shoot Dawkins once before. The majority of these accounts were hearsay, as only Scarber, the Dawkins’ siblings and Paul Allen were actually present the night of the alleged incident. But the gist was this: late one night in July 1999, the foursome was pulling up to Scarber’s house (her parents’ were out of town), and saw someone moving inside. They drove away, and Dawkins and Allen later returned to investigate. According to an interview Allen gave to investigators, when they pulled into the carport, an unidentified figure shot at them – or at least, Allen thought he saw a muzzle flash. Many of the hearsay accounts have the pair hearing a shot, and while they all implicate Watkins, neither Allen nor Dawkins’ actually saw the shooter. In fact, when they later returned to the scene with police in tow, there was no evidence that anyone had broken into the house or fired a gun. (Allen spoke to Undisclosed and said he has no memory of the incident, though he said he doesn’t have reason to doubt what he said back then.)
The rumor that Watkins had shot at Dawkins persisted, even after it was revealed that Watkins was out of state and couldn’t have been responsible. He, along with his sister Tandi, his then-girlfriend Shae and his friend Clay, were all down in Panama City, Florida, and he had documentation to prove it. Nevertheless, in August 1999, Scarber filed a warrant application against Watkins, and the two appeared at a court hearing shortly thereafter. Scarber testified about the alleged break-in and shooting, but Dawkins and Allen – the two people who were allegedly present during the incident – did not. The judge tossed out Scarber’s allegations on account of the fact that she had no proof, and warned her and Watkins to stay away from each other.
When Isaac Dawkins was actually shot a few months later, the rumor, despite being debunked and dismissed by a judge, was repeated to police by no less than five people, seemingly as fact, sparking their interest in him as a suspect. This, host Colin Miller explains in episode one, is an example of a psychological phenomenon called “the illusion-of-truth effect,” or the tendency to believe information is correct because we’re exposed to it more often.
“Why would Joey shoot Isaac?” Miller asks in episode one. “He had done it before. That was the story passed from person to person in the Rome rumor mill.” And once that story was told to police, it gave them a perfectly good reason to consider Watkins as a possible suspect in Dawkins’ murder.
There are a number of obvious parallels between Syed’s and Watkins’ cases – the crimes in which they were implicated occurred just a year apart; they were both convicted of killing someone within their close circle of friends; Syed was 17 when he was convicted, while Watkins was barely 20, meaning they’ve spent basically their entire adult lives behind bars. Co-host Simpson also points out that Syed and Watkins “were privileged to have very, very respected, and very, very highly paid attorneys in their cases, which goes to show that it doesn’t necessarily matter how much you pay, it’s about whether your attorney is actually doing their job.” More on that during a later episode.
Prosecutors in both cases alleged that Syed and Watkins didn’t act entirely on their own. While Jay Wilds proved to be a cooperative – if completely inconsistent – state’s witness against Syed, prosecutors didn’t have the same luck with Mark Free, Watkins’ alleged co-conspirator. Prosecutors tried the two men separately, alleging that the two men were together when Dawkins was shot, with one behind the wheel and the other firing the gun (though they were never clear about who did what). Free testified at Watkins’ trial that he knew nothing about the crime and was nowhere near the scene. Watkins, who had already been convicted, was called to testify at Free’s trial, and while he was given immunity – guaranteeing that it would not impact his sentence or be used against him as he pursued an appeal – Watkins defied the judge and refused to answer any questions. Free was ultimately acquitted on all charges.
“Mark knows very well that there is no way to tell this story without him being subject to scrutiny, bringing up old stuff that he has tried very hard to put in the past,” Simpson tells Rolling Stone. “He knows that this is not going to be something that is going to be very easy for him either. But he has not flinched; he has been very happy to talk to us. I feel worried about Mark – he stayed in Rome, and this the podcast is going to reopen a chapter in his life that had been closed for awhile.”
Perhaps the most striking similarity between the Syed case and the Watkins case is one they also share with countless others – the “illusion of truth effect.” In many wrongful conviction cases, law enforcement has employed interview tactics with witnesses that get them the answers they want, but not necessarily answers that are completely accurate. Through relentless and leading interrogation, memory can be tainted to the point where even the witness may have a hard time distinguishing between what they actually saw and heard and what they came to believe they saw and heard. Tunnel vision – that is, a narrow focus on one suspect and/or one theory for the crime – depends on the illusion of truth effect to stay on course, as evidence of innocence is ignored, while evidence of guilt is embraced.
Then there are those lawyers who cherry-pick which factual details, divorced from context, will inform their characterization of the defendant and the crime in their opening statement and closing argument. Though they are not considered evidence, these two statements are hardly without influence; hold the jury in rapt attention with an opening statement, and tint the lens through which the jurors view the evidence and testimony. Nail a closing argument, regardless of how strong the evidence is, and the words will be ringing in jurors’ heads as they begin deliberations. While the jury is supposed to base their verdict on the evidence, these statements provide the most verbose, cohesive narrative for the crime that jurors and the public will likely ever hear.
It’s clear that Watkins’ reputation not only preceded him, but preceded the facts as well. Watkins apparently had no idea that the “Illusion of Truth” surrounding the alleged July 1999 break-in and shooting was one of main reasons that the police focused their investigation on him; but at trial, Watkins watched and listened as the prosecution took his reputation for being a bit of troublemaking jerk and twisted it into their characterization of him as a jealous, dangerous bully whose hatred for Dawkins led him to commit murder.
“I don’t claim to be perfect, I’m not an angel,” Watkins told Simpson in his slow drawl in episode one. “But, you know, I didn’t kill nobody…. I understand [why they looked at me.] But when it came down to it, they should’ve seen the truth.”
New episodes of Undisclosed are available every Monday at 6 p.m, with bonus episodes hosted by Jon Cryer available Thursdays.
Correction: Brianne Scarber’s name was originally misreported as Brianne Scarborough. We regret the error.