St. Louis man fights for innocence as his lawyer battles over a document

Kurtis Watkins is losing faith in the criminal justice system.

“My life does not seem real to me,” Watkins wrote me in an email recently. “It’s like I’m in a bad dream that keeps playing. Every day I wake up in this cell.”

That cell is in the Jefferson City Correctional Center. Watkins has been there since January 2016, when he was convicted of assault in a St. Louis shooting in which nobody died. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison, in part because he had previously been convicted of a gun crime and marijuana possession.

The shooting was in the Dutchtown neighborhood, after a party in which a couple of people got in a dispute. Watkins, who is Black, was convicted based on the testimony of a white police officer, Steven Pinkerton, who was the only witness to put Watkins near the crime scene. The first trial ended in a hung jury, in part because Pinkerton testified he was “unsure” he could identify Watkins as the shooter.

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By the second trial, Pinkerton was “100 percent sure,” according to court records. An all-white jury convicted Watkins of nine felony counts.

Watkins says he has an alibi — he was at a friend’s house — but his public defender never investigated or asked the friend to testify. Nobody at the party could identify Watkins, or even knew him. The co-defendant, one of the actual shooters, says he doesn’t know Watkins.

Watkins happened to be walking to the liquor store that night, he says, when police picked him up. Pinkerton later identified him, even though Watkins didn’t really match the description of the shooter — other than the color of his skin.

Since his conviction, Watkins has gone through various appeals in Missouri courts. His latest lawyer,

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