Nashville, Tenn. – After spending 27 long years behind bars for a crime she didn’t commit, a 74-year-old Tennessee woman has finally been exonerated.
Joyce Watkins had been on parole since 2015, but it wasn’t until Wednesday when she was exonerated, that she was truly free. She spent 27 years of her life in prison after being convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated rape.
On June 26, 1987, Watkins and her then-boyfriend Charlie Dunn went to Kentucky to pick up Watkins’ great-niece, Brandi, according to a report filed with the Davidson County Criminal Court. About an hour after arriving back home Watkins noticed blood in Brandi’s underwear. Later, the child became unresponsive and Watkins immediately rushed her to the hospital. The 4-year-old died later that day. The cause of death was severe vaginal injury and head trauma. Watkins and Dunn were charged with first-degree murder and aggravated rape.
It was never made clear as to why Brandi wasn’t with her mother, who was in Georgia at the time. However, social workers had received complaints and reports of abuse in reference to another one of Brandi’s other great-aunts—Rose Williams. Although the child had been staying with Williams prior to Watkins and Dunn picking her up nothing came of the social worker investigations.
In 2015, after 27 years in prison, Watkins was released on parole. Dunn died suddenly before his released.
Upon her release, Watkins sought the help of the Tennessee Innocence Project to prover her innocence. In November 2021, the non-profit organization filed a request asking that Watkins’ and Dunn’s convictions be overturned. The request cited several key details that pointed to their innocence – most prominently, the medical examiner’s original report that said the abuse took place during the 9 hour window in which the child was with couple.
The report, filed by Dr. Greta Harlan, was later recanted and said that the injuries could have been inflicted 48 hours before the child was with Watkins and Dunn. Shipla Reddy said in the new report that 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.”
Now, more than 35 years after being convicted and imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit, Watkins has been exonerated and Dunn has been posthumously exonerated.
“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 in the history of Tennessee to be exonerated and only the third woman overall.
It is not yet clear if Watkins’ or Dunn’s family will ask for compensation.
“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, according to WZTV.