74-year-old Nashville woman exonerated after 27 years in prison

Joyce Watkins is the first Black woman to be exonerated in Tennessee history

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A 74-year-old Nashville woman and her late boyfriend have been exonerated for the rape and murder of her great-niece after she served nearly 30 years behind bars.

According to court documents, Joyce Watkins and Charlie Dunn were convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated rape after her four-year-old niece, Brandi, died from brain and vaginal injuries while in their care.

The couple only had Brandi for a few hours before she fell unresponsive, but prosecutors alleged that Brandi’s injuries were sustained while she was with them.

In June 1987, the couple picked up Brandi from Kentucky, where she was being watched by her other great-aunt, Rose Williams, for two months.

The next morning, Brandi was unresponsive and Watkins took her to the Nashville Memorial Hospital.

After discovering her injuries, doctors ruled that Brandi had been raped while with the couple.

The next morning, Brandi died from her injuries and the two served 27 years in prison before they were both granted parole in 2015. Dunn passed away in prison before he was released.

Watkins is the first Black woman to be exonerated in Tennessee history, and the third woman overall. Dunn was given a posthumous exoneration.

Watkins had been on a mission to clear her and Dunn’s name for a while.

She enlisted the help of the Tennessee Innocence Project, a non-profit that helps those wrongfully accused of crimes, and the Davidson County District Attorney’s Office.

“She just showed up at the office and said, ‘Let me tell you my story. I need your help,’” said senior legal counsel with the Tennessee Innocence Project, Jason Gichner to CNN.

The request for the convictions to be vacated was filed on November 21.

Judge Wooden gavel on the table of judge with american flag and black chair
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

The filing clarified several points including a retraction from the medical examiner, the failures of the prosecution and the sketchy occurrences at Williams’ house.

During the court trial, medical examiner Dr. Greta Harlan told the jury that Brandi’s injuries had been sustained within nine hours of her being brought to the hospital, but at one point, she had stated that the injuries could have been sustained up to 48 hours or more prior to her death.

The ruling noted that Harlan recognized and acknowledged her error in evaluating the time of injury years after the trial.

The ruling also revealed how detectives did not question many other people who were involved or had access to Brandi while she was with Williams.

Williams lived on a military base where dozens of adults had access to her, the report said.

In addition, a neighbor reported to the Kentucky Department of Social Service that they suspected that Brandi had been abused while she was with Williams.

“Joyce Watkins and Charlie Dunn are innocent,” said District Attorney Glenn Funk. “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.”

It is not known if Watkins or Dunn’s estate will be compensated for the false conviction. 

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