AP NEWS

‘Undisclosed’ podcast appeals Sparks’ order

November 20, 2016 GMT

A popular podcast series investigating the murder conviction of a Rome man is asking Georgia’s high court to allow them to copy audiotapes of his trial.

The move came after Floyd County Superior Court Judge Billy Sparks granted Undisclosed LLC access to a court reporter’s backup audio tapes but expressly said the company cannot copy those tapes.

The Undisclosed audio series is examining the case and trial leading to the conviction of Joey Watkins. Watkins was convicted of shooting and killing Isaac Dawkins, on Jan. 11, 2000, while driving on U.S. 27 near Georgia Highlands College.

Watkins is serving a life sentence plus five years in prison on murder, stalking and weapons charges.

His co-defendant, Mark Free, was acquitted in early 2002.

In Undisclosed, attorneys and college professors attempt to find new witnesses and evidence to help people they believe have been wrongly convicted.

In this particular case, Watkins’ defense attorneys and his family members say he was nowhere near the scene of the murder and there was undue influence in the investigation.

Access but no copies

Undisclosed LLC’s attorney, Sarah Brewerton-Palmer, says the concern is while the court is allowing access to the audio tapes of the trial, they’re not allowing the company to copy them.

Members of the public are allowed to copy other court documents and these should be no different, she said.

“The logic in the order applies to all court records not just audio recordings,” Brewerton- Palmer contends. “That’s problematic.”

Another surprise to being denied access, she said, is neither the state nor the defendant has attempted to block the recordings.

“There is a lot of federal precedent and state precedent,” she said. “Inspect and copy is mentioned throughout.”

Their argument is that the audio recordings should be open to the public just like any other court document.

Sparks, in his order, disagreed. Georgia’s Uniform Superior Court Rule 21 states court records are public and allows public inspection of the court reporter’s backup recordings but, Sparks wrote, does not entitle them to “copies of a court reporter’s back-up tapes/recordings.”

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation has also filed a brief supporting Undisclosed’s claim.

Citing multiple cases the brief states “courts throughout the country have repeatedly recognized that the public has ‘a legitimate and important interest’ in seeing and hearing recorded evidence.”

Sparks, when called by phone Friday, relayed through a clerk that he has no comment.

In a hurry

Undisclosed has requested the high court expedite their request to review Sparks’ ruling.

“Episodes focused on the trial are scheduled to begin in early December 2016 and will continue through early January 2017,” the request stated. “Audio from the trial will be critical for these episodes.”

Georgia Innocence Project Interim Director Clare Gilbert, who is also representing Watkins, said she previously had access to copy some of the tapes until Judge Sparks’ order on Oct. 28.

Originally, she was granted access to copy the tapes but realized she needed equipment to copy the 4-track tapes. She got the equipment and made a copy of the tapes they were given access to.

But when she went back to copy the rest of the tapes, she was told they were not allowed. “There are two separate trial tapes — Joey Watkins and Mark Free,” Gilbert said. “They gave us the Mark Free tapes to take with us. We cataloged them. We have copies of the Mark Free tapes. The problem is they never let us copy the Watkins tapes.”

Now, they’re hoping the Georgia Supreme Court will amend Sparks’ order to allow them copies of the court reporter’s audio tapes of Watkins’ trial.

As it relates to Watkins’ murder conviction, his attorneys have not filed anything yet. “Each week we’re still investigating the information to contribute to the podcast,” Gilbert said. “We do anticipate filing something within the next few months. We’re still assessing all the potential legal claims.”