In 2021, 161 people were exonerated across America, each serving an average of 11.5 years for crimes they did not commit, according to a report by the National Registry of Exonerations. Eight of these 161 people were from Georgia. Of those eight people, six were charged with murder sentences of life or life without parole, six were charged partially due to official misconduct, and four were charged partially due to mistaken witness identification.
The Georgia Innocence Project (GIP), which is headquartered in Atlanta, is a leading organization in the exonerations of the wrongfully convicted. While they also educate the public on wrongful incarcerations, help exonerees rebuild their lives post-exoneration, and advance wrongful conviction prevention tactics, their overarching goal is to free the innocent. Currently, the organization is focusing on three cases: those of Sonny Bharadia, Joey Watkins, and Earnest Ray White.
YEARS SERVED: 21
On November 18, 2001, Sandeep “Sonny” Bharadia was working on a car in Stone Mountain. Hundreds of miles away, in Savannah, a woman entered her home to find a burglar stealing her possessions and was sexually assaulted. The woman recalled that the assailant wore blue and white batting gloves.
Several days later, Bharadia reported to police that his acquaintance, Sterling Flint, had stolen his car. When the police investigated Flint, they found the gloves and other possessions of the woman. The woman identified Flint from a lineup, and Flint subsequently said that the woman’s items were found in Bharadia’s car. Flint pleaded guilty to theft by receiving stolen property and in a second lineup, the woman identified Bharadia as her assailant. Taking a plea deal, Flint also testified against Bharadia. Flint’s testimony and the woman’s misidentification led to Bharadia’s arrest; he was convicted in 2003 and sentenced to life without parole plus 40 years.
Access to post-conviction DNA testing is a major factor in wrongful convictions. The gloves in Bharadia’s case were never tested for DNA evidence until GIP took the case. In 2011, DNA testing of the gloves resulted in a match with Sterling Flint.
Although the case made it all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court, it was ultimately decided against Bharadia due to legal technicalities, including the fact that the gloves could have been tested during the initial trial. The appeal for the case was then denied. While GIP cannot talk about the current strategies they are looking into, a spokesperson for GIP says the reason behind the appeal’s denial was that “the Georgia Supreme Court essentially said that Sonny took too long to uncover the DNA evidence that proves his innocence.”
YEARS SERVED: 22
Isaac Dawkins swerved off the highway between Rome and Cedartown on January 11, 2000, after being shot in the head while driving. A witness said that Dawkins was interacting with an aggressive, small blue car moments prior to the accident. Joey Watkins was an initial suspect in the investigation due to past arguments Watkins had with Isaac over a woman, but he was later ruled out. Then, months later when Sergeant Stanley Sutton overtook the case, Watkins and his friend, Mark Free, were reinvestigated and charged with 12 months after the crime. In July of 2001, Watkins was sentenced to life in prison plus six years.
The night of the shooting, Watkins was seen leaving in his white truck and arriving at his girlfriend’s house 45 minutes later, still in the same vehicle. From cell phone and tower information, it is clear that Watkins was on his phone before, during, and after the accident.
GIP took over this case in 2016, and, while investigating with the true crime podcast Undisclosed, they found multiple types of misconduct that led them to submit a habeas petition. Specifically, they found juror misconduct, where a juror completed an unauthorized drive test to determine whether Joey’s alibi was solid, and official misconduct, where the “State withheld evidence from the defense and presented false/misleading testimony related to evidence withheld.” Judge Don Thompson denied the petition, though the Georgia Supreme Court allowed GIP to appeal. Then in April 2022, after new evidence and reasonings were argued, Judge Thompson granted the appeal, allowing Watkins a new trial. In May, Georgia’s Attorney General, Chris Carr, filed a notice of appeal for Watkins’ case. The Supreme Court of Georgia docketed the case and oral arguments were held on October 4th, 2022. On this day, Watkins’ team went before the supreme court to argue Judge Thompson’s decision was correct. Currently, Watkins and his team are awaiting Georgia Supreme Court’s decisions, which should be released by mid-March of 2023.
EARNEST RAY WHITE
YEARS SERVED: 25
In 1994, a woman began receiving harassing phone calls. Weeks later, she received another phone call, which said “see you soon.” A day later, while taking out her trash, someone came to her house, forced his way into her house, and attempted to rape her. Luckily, the victim was able to find a handgun and fired it, scaring off the assailant.
When police made a composite sketch of the intruder based on the victim’s description, he was mustacheless. The victim’s boyfriend mentioned that if the sketch had a mustache, it would look like Earnest Ray White, a man he knew from the gym. After this comment, the police added a mustache to the sketch, and the victim’s boyfriend began to say that White was the assailant. White became the primary suspect in the case. The police set up a photo array and an in-person lineup, where White was the only person in both the array and line-up. From these, the victim identified White. According to a 2013 scientific study published in the Applied Cognitive Society, a common person in two identification processes affects the viewer’s decision. Police also investigated the harassment phone calls but found no connection to White. At the time of the incident, a scanner recording White’s job activities, as well as his co-workers, placed him at work. Still, based on the victim’s identification and composite sketch (with a mustache), White was convicted of aggravated assault, burglary, and bodily injury and was sentenced to life in prison.
One area that GIP is focusing on is the state’s negligence in making a written response to White’s notice of Alibi. Such negligence constituted a violation of Georgia Code 17-16- 5, which provides White with the opportunity to use his alibi as a clear defense. However, the Court of Appeals said that “The state’s failure to comply with OCGA §17-16-5 does not, however, demand that a trial court grant a defendant’s motion for acquittal… [and] we affirm the conviction because the defendant failed to object to the state’s rebuttal witnesses.” Accordingly, GIP began focusing their energies on other openings in the case.
DNA testing has become a key factor in determining the innocence of wrongfully convicted persons. Once GIP took over White’s trial, they looked into whether the leggings of the victim could be DNA tested, in hopes of finding DNA belonging to the assailant. The district attorney in the case refused testing on the basis that the state had not stored the leggings in a temperature-controlled warehouse. In 2018, however, the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of White, saying that the trial court misapplied Georgia Code 17-16-5, which allows for motions of DNA testing to be written. Once tested, it was determined that male DNA was found on the leggings and that this DNA did not belong to White. According to GIP, they have “filed an Extraordinary Motion for New Trial for Ray based on these exculpatory DNA results, and that motion is currently pending in Columbia County Superior Court.”
These three active cases within Georgia are mirrored all across America. According to studies done by the Prison Policy Initiative, if U.S. states were categorized as countries, Georgia would rank fourth highest in incarceration rates. The U.S.’ incarceration rate is nearly five times higher than other developed countries such as Canada or Australia. With a justice system as vast as the one the U.S. has, there are bound to be wrongful convictions, accidental or not, due to all different kinds of errors. Eyewitness misidentifications, inadequate defense, misused forensic science, jailhouse informants, false confessions, and access to post-conviction DNA testing all play a role in wrongful convictions. Some, if not all, of these problems, do not have a permanent solution; human error will always be a factor. Therefore, the work of justice and innocence organizations will never be finished.