Legislation to compensate a group of wrongfully convicted Georgians fails during 2024 General Assembly

Georgia House Majority Leader Churck Efstration, Rep. Katie Dempsey and Rep. Matt Barton meet with Lee Clark and Joey Watkins at the ropes outside the House Chambers at the State Capitol on Wednesday, March 20, 2024. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Lee Clark and Joey Watkins first met in 2001 as inmates at Phillips State Prison in Buford. Clark says they quickly realized they had a lot in common.

“A lot of the same people that were in play, same situation with his, same attorney. I mean, I keep going on and on. So many things there. But, yeah, we developed a strong friendship. Joey is like my brother.”

Both men are from Floyd County in Northwest Georgia and believed they were innocent. Watkins, who is now 43, says he felt that connection, too.

“His case was before mine, and he started telling me some of the detectives and investigators, and I was, like, wait a minute, this guy was involved in my stuff too. So, you know, just kind of went from there and then we ended up in, what? Four different prisons together. Four over the years — yep.”

Joey Watkins was exonerated in 2023 after serving more than 20 years in prison. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

With the help of the Georgia Innocence Project and the Proof podcast, Clark’s murder conviction was overturned because the only evidence was two witnesses who had been improperly influenced by law enforcement and eventually determined to be unreliable.

After first being arrested as a 17-year-old and serving 25 years in prison, Clark was released in December 2022.

In Watkins’ case, the Georgia Innocence Project and the Undisclosed podcast revealed misconduct by investigators, prosecutors and a juror.

After serving 22 years in prison, Watkins was released in January 2023, just 26 days after his friend Clark.

In Georgia, compensation for the wrongfully convicted and jailed is handled like any other piece of state legislation: a single resolution for each person.

The resolutions would compensate Clark and Watkins $72,000 for each year in prison, which would come to about $1.8 million and $1.6 million, respectively.

On Feb. 29, Republican state Rep. Katie Dempsey presented those resolutions on the House floor.

Lee Clark, Rome Republican Rep. Katie Dempsey, and Joey Watkins chat on the third floor of the State Capitol about their time lobbying for the passing of the two resolutions Dempsey has sponsored to compensate the two men for their time wrongfully imprisoned. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

“I know we’ve done a lot of things today, but I’m gonna tell you all that these two resolutions we’re about to do. I’m gonna do the first one now — are very important to me and to my community and to some very special people that are here with us tonight.”

Clark’s passed 156-6, and Watkins’s passed 162-2.

Republican state House Speaker Jon Burns even noted their attendance in the public gallery.

“Good to have you gentlemen, but sorry, you had to be here,” Burns said.

At least one of the lawmakers who voted against the resolutions told WABE that it was not an issue with the cases themselves but that he did not believe his constituents should pay for the mistakes of another part of the state.

While happy his resolution had passed the House, Watkins called the process stressful. Clark believes there is a better way.

“There should be a committee in place here in Georgia where if a man is wrongfully convicted or woman … and they get out of prison, you should automatically compensate them people when they get out. They shouldn’t have to go through all this that they have to go through to get compensated.”

Democratic state Rep. Scott Holcomb has proposed the Wrongful Conviction Compensation Review Panel, which would include a current or retired judge, a current district attorney, a defense attorney and experts on wrongful convictions.

“Just having individual resolutions for those that have been wrongfully convicted — it’s cumbersome. It leads to different results and it makes it a political process. And really, this is something that should have a much better framework, and we’ve developed that,” he said.

Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, on the House Floor on the night of Sine Die, the last day of the legislative session, Thursday, March 28, 2024. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

As Holcomb mentioned, since the compensation resolutions are pieces of legislation, they can get caught up in the political process, which is what happened with Clark, Watkins and four other resolutions.

Move forward three weeks. The state Senate had not acted on any of the resolutions. Clark and Watkins made their way back to the Capitol to make their case to state senators.

Clark made this tearful plea to reporters who had gathered in the Rotunda.

“It’s only right. I mean, 25 years of my life is gone. I can’t get that back. I mean, I miss so much stuff. I don’t have kids. I don’t have anything out here. I ain’t go without that. I ain’t got no future,” Clark continued.

“I mean, I’m 45. I don’t know how much, I don’t know how much longer I got to work. I don’t have much longer. I got anything left in me. I mean, this, I really need this money and it’s, it’s only right that I get this money. I mean, my life was taken from me for something I didn’t even do. Sorry. I mean, I … I don’t know where to put it. I mean, right’s right. Wrong’s wrong.”

None of the compensation resolutions passed the Senate Appropriations Committee, which Republican Sen. Blake Tillery chairs.

“Well, I’m very concerned about wrongful prosecutions and wrongful convictions,” Tillery said. “I’m concerned that I’m going to have 21 more of these from Fulton County next year,” referring to former President Donald Trump and others who were indicted in the Georgia election interference case. He had no further comment about the compensation resolutions.

With those resolutions effectively dead in the Senate, House lawmakers made a last-ditch effort by adding the proposed review panel to an existing Senate bill.

Lee Clark listens with Rome Republican Rep. Katie Dempsey, the sponsor of a resolution that would compensate him for the 25 years he spent wrongfully imprisoned. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Then came the final day of the legislative session. When the bill came up in the state Senate, Democrat Elena Parent asked about the review panel language.

“Is it the case that the most recent version, the language that we are stripping on this vote, is a wrongful compensation review panel to review claims of wrongful conviction with innocence as a requirement? That is correct.”

Rep. Holcomb was incensed, especially because Clark and Watkins were in the Senate public gallery.

“I know that this just happened, and my emotions are a little bit raw, but tonight, when the Senate rejected it, two of the exonerated were actually in the gallery,” he said. “And you think about how they must have felt through that these are people who spent decades of their lives in prison for crimes that they didn’t commit. And here we are trying to do just a little something to make their lives better by giving them some compensation, which is the only way that we can try to make their lives better is through compensation and we couldn’t get there.”

Neither Clark nor Watkins wanted to speak after the legislation failed for the final time, but in the weeks leading up to the final day, WABE asked Watkins about the possibility of the legislation failing.

“I guess it would change the trajectory of my life as far as my future plans. But if it happens, I mean, there’s nothing I can do. We’ve done all we can do. I mean, I’m … I’m hoping and praying that it happens. But if it doesn’t, you know, I’ll… I’ll keep pushing.”

Watkins’s dream is to open his own car dealership like their father did.

The next Georgia General Assembly begins on Jan. 13, 2025.