After more than 30 years, a Tennessee woman who was wrongly convicted of murdering her great-niece has been exonerated. 74-year-old Joyce Watkins was cleared of her convictions on Wednesday, making her the first Black woman to ever be exonerated in the state and only the third woman in Tennessee history.
The Tennessee Innocence Project helped reopen the case; the DA’s Conviction Review Unit analyzed the evidence, News Channel 5 reported. “It’s been a long struggle, but I want to thank the DA’s office. I want to thank Mr. Gichner here with the Tennessee Innocence Project and all the people for their prayers and just helping me to get out of this mess which cost me half of my life for nothing,” Watkins said.
On June 26, 1987, Watkins and her boyfriend at the time, Charlie Dunn, picked up Watkins’ four-year-old great-niece, Brandi, from another family member’s home in Kentucky. Brandi had been staying there for two months. Watkins said that nine hours after she brought Brandi back to Nashville, Brandi was unconscious so she took her to Nashville Memorial Hospital. Watkins said she found blood in Brandi’s underwear and signs of bruising.
At the hospital, doctors said Brandi had suffered from severe vaginal injury and head trauma. She was pronounced dead the following day, according to a report filed with the Davidson County Criminal Court. Watkins and her boyfriend Dunn were with Brandi for only nine hours, however, the medical examiner, Dr. Gretel Harlan, concluded the injuries were sustained during that time, WCVB News reported.
Watkins and Dunn were convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated rape in August 1988. They spent 27 years in prison before they were both granted parole in 2015. Watkins said she was offered a deal to testify against Dunn and avoid prison but she declined. And when she was asked why, she said, “because Charlie was innocent. We were innocent.”
Dunn died in prison while awaiting parole.
Brandi was leaving at the home of her great-aunt Rose Williams before she was picked up by Watkins and Dunn, officials said. Brandi’s mother was in Georgia at the time. And during that period, a Kentucky Department of Social Services worker visited the home after being told that Brandi had been abused. But Williams blamed Brandi’s injuries on a “playground mishap”, and the investigation was closed.
Three decades later, Judge Angelita Blackshear Dalton has dismissed the charges against Watkins. Dunn was also cleared of the crime and posthumously exonerated.
“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.’ “
A report filed with the Davidson County Criminal Court on November 10, 2021, asked that the couple’s convictions be vacated. The filing noted that Watkins noticed blood in Brandi’s underwear when they arrived home, and that was only an hour and a half after the couple had picked her up. About an hour of that time was spent driving back to Nashville.
A report from Dr. Shipla Reddy was also included in the filing, which said that 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,” WCVB News reported. Harlan admitted the error in her methodology years after the trial, according to the ruling.
“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.”