This week, a woman who was wrongfully convicted of murdering her great-niece and spent 27 years in prison, was exonerated.
On June 26, 1987, Joyce Watkins, now 74, and her boyfriend at the time, Charlie Dunn, went to pick up Watkins’s four-year-old great-niece, Brandi, in Kentucky, per a report filed with the Davidson County Criminal Court.
The next morning Brandi was unresponsive, so Watkins took her to Nashville Memorial Hospital. Brandi suffered from severe vaginal injury and head trauma. The following day, she was pronounced dead. The two were with Brandi for only nine hours, but the medical examiner, Dr. Gretel Harlan, concluded the injuries were sustained during that time.
A year later, in August 1988, Watkins and Dunn were convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated rape. The two spent 27 years behind bars before they were both granted parole in 2015.
Prior to his release, Dunn, unfortunately, passed away in jail. Before Brandi was picked up by the couple, she was living at the home of Rose Williams, Brandi’s great-aunt.
Brandi’s mother was in Georgia at the time and throughout that period, a Kentucky Department of Social Services worker visited the home after receiving a report Brandi had been abused. Williams explained Brandi’s injuries were due to a playground mishap and the investigation was closed.
Watkins has been exonerated 35 years later after she made it a point to clear her name. Dunn was also cleared of the crime and posthumously exonerated. His daughter, Jackie Dunn, was at the hearing on Wednesday.
“I wish my daddy was here to witness this day,” she said. “He knew he was innocent, he knew he did not commit those crimes,” Dunn said to CNN affiliate WTVF. Watkins got assistance from the Tennessee Innocence Project as well as the Davidson County District Attorney’s Office.
“We got this case because she (Joyce) came to us,” Jason Gichner, senior legal counsel with the Tennessee Innocence Project told CNN. “She just showed up at the office and said, ‘Let me tell you my story. I need your help.’ “The report was filed on November 10, 2021, asking that the pair’s convictions be vacated.
The filing clarified Watkins noticed blood in Brandi’s underwear when they arrived home, only an hour and a half after the couple picked her up, with at least an hour of that time spent driving back to Nashville. A report from Dr. Shipla Reddy was also included in the filing, who said Dr. Harlan’s “methodology for dating the head injury based upon a lack of histiocytic response in the brain tissue is not a legitimate method for dating pediatric head trauma.”
The ruling noted Harlan conceded the error in her methodology years after the trial. “Joyce Watkins and Charlie Dunn are innocent,” District Attorney Glenn Funk told CNN, “We cannot give Ms. Watkins or Mr. Dunn their lost years but we can restore their dignity; we can restore their names. Their innocence demands it.”
Watkins is the first black woman to ever be exonerated in the state and only the third woman in Tennessee history according to Sunny Eaton with the District Attorney’s Office,
“Miss Watkins, this charge against you is dismissed,” Davidson County Criminal Court Judge, Angelita Blackshear Dalton, said Wednesday morning, according to the outlet.
Watkins said, “I thank all the people for their prayers and helping me get out of this mess which has cost me half of my life for nothing, But I’ll get over it,” Watkins said.
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