Couple exonerated after spending 27 years in prison for niece’s rape, murder

Joyce Watkins and Charlie Dunn spent 27 years in prison before parole was granted in 2015, but Dunn died before his release.

A Tennessee family was ripped apart when a 4-year-old girl was found unresponsive at the home of her great-aunt in Nashville on June 2, 1987. 

The toddler, Brandi, had suffered from severe vaginal injury and head trauma, according to then-medical examiner, Dr. Gretel Harlan. Harlan said the girl suffered the injuries during the nine hours passed between when Joyce Watkins and boyfriend Charlie Dunn picked the child up from another relative’s home in Kentucky and the following morning. The girl was then found unresponsive and transported by Watkins to Nashville Memorial Hospital in Madison, where she died. 

Joyce Watkins (left) and Charlie Dunn (right) spent 27 years in prison for the 1987 first-degree murder and aggravated rape of her 4-year-old great-niece. Both were recently exonerated, but Dunn died before his 2015 release on parole. (Photo: Screenshot/

Watkins and Dunn were charged with the crime and convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated rape in 1988. They spent 27 years in prison before parole was granted for both in 2015, but Dunn died just before his release. 

Now, the family is healing after Watkins, now 74, was exonerated of the crime last Wednesday, thanks to the focused assistance of the Tennessee Innocence Project and the Conviction Review Unit in the Nashville district attorney’s office, the latter’s fifth overturning since it began in five years ago. Dunn was posthumously exonerated as well.

“I wish my daddy was here to witness this day,” his daughter, Jackie Dunn, told WTVF. “He knew he was innocent, he knew he did not commit those crimes. He lost his mother, his two brothers, his sister and his son. So many people lost, and he was innocent. He died in a place he was never supposed to be.” 

“We got this case because she (Joyce) came to us,” said Jason Gichner, senior legal counsel with the Tennessee Innocence Project. “She just showed up at the office and said, ‘Let me tell you my story. I need your help.'”

According to CNN, Watkins is the first Black woman to be exonerated by the state of Tennessee. Gichner said it is unclear if Watkins or Dunn’s family will get compensation from the state for their wrongful convictions. 

The filing to clear her name noted that Watkins had told police she had spotted blood on Brandi’s underwear when she and Dunn picked her up from the home of Rose Williams, another great-aunt of the toddler. According to reports, during the time she had been living with Williams, Kentucky Department of Social Services worker visited the home after receiving a claim young Brandi had been abused.

Additionally, the medical examiner later conceded that the method used for diagnosing Brandi’s brain trauma was not in line with pediatric guidelines.

In speaking to reporters this week, 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 will no longer be on the sex offender registry, where she’s been subjected to strict rules since her October 2015 prison release.

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