74-year-old Black woman exonerated after serving 27 years in prison

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After serving 27 years in prison for crimes she did not commit, 74-year-old Joyce Watkins of Nashville was exonerated this month, her convictions in the murder and sexual assault of her 4-year-old grandniece overturned.

Watkins, along with her then boyfriend, Charlie Dunn, had been convicted in 1988 of first-degree murder and aggravated rape in the death of her niece Brandi, but were both granted parole in 2015. Dunn, who died in prison before his release, was posthumously exonerated that same year. Watkins, meanwhile, left jail and sought to clear her good name, eventually becoming the first Black woman in Tennessee history to have her conviction overturned.

“It was a long struggle to get here,” Watkins told Yahoo News through her lawyer, Jason Gichner, the senior legal counsel for the Tennessee Innocence Project.

“We’re grateful for the judge and we're grateful for the collaboration with the district attorney’s office,” Gichner echoed, “But [Watkins] lost 27 years of her life. Charlie lost 27 years of his life. His kids and grandkids grew up with people thinking that their father and grandfather was a murderer. There's nothing we can do to fix that. All we can do is acknowledge what happened to them and publicly celebrate their innocence now.”

Joyce Watkins
Joyce Watkins, 74, of Nashville, was exonerated on Jan. 12 for her convictions in the sexual assault and murder of her 4-year-old grandniece.

On June 26, 1987, Watkins and Dunn had driven to Kentucky to pick up Brandi, her grandniece, from the home of Watkins’s sister, Rose Williams. Brandi was in the couple’s care for just nine hours before being found the following morning unresponsive in bed.

Watkins and Dunn drove her to Nashville Memorial Hospital, where it was determined that the girl had suffered severe vaginal injury and head trauma. She was transferred to Vanderbilt University Hospital and placed on life support, before being pronounced dead the following day.

Initially, Gichner said, the couple were not considered suspects.

“Then, the medical examiner had this opinion that, ‘Well, these injuries had to have happened based on things that I'm seeing during the autopsy,’ but she was just getting it wrong. I mean, she was looking for a certain type of cell to appear in the brain slides that would never be there,” Gichner said, referring to a lack of histiocytic response in the brain tissue. “So she said, because I saw a lack of these particular cells, that means it happened within the last 12 hours. And there's just no truth to support that.”

The initial medical report in the case was rendered by Dr. Gretel Harlan, assistant medical examiner and the wife of Dr. Charles Harlan, the state’s chief medical examiner at the time. Court documents state that Harlan initially said that the child’s fatal injuries occurred 24 hours to 48 hours before her death, but according to court records, moments before heading into the courtroom for the trial, she shortened the window of injury to 12 hours, concluding that Watkins and Dunn victimized the toddler.

In August 1988, Dunn and Watkins were convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated rape, based on the flawed theory by the medical examiner’s testimony. According to the Atlanta Black Star, police also stated that other evidence was overlooked or not investigated.

“These are good people, you know? If you went back to the late ’80s and you just looked at Joyce and Charlie, I mean, who are they?” Gichner said. “They’re folks with full-time jobs who have never been in trouble before. Joyce owned her own home. Charlie had raised a bunch of children. They worked five days a week at the same company for years, full-time shifts.”

Charlie Dunn
Charlie Dunn, who died in prison in 2015, was posthumously exonerated on Jan. 12.

While Dunn passed away before his release, Watkins was able to walk out of prison, a free woman, yet her reputation remained tarnished.

In February 2020, Watkins sought help from the Tennessee Innocence Project, and on Nov. 10, 2021, a report was filed jointly with the Davidson County District Attorney’s Office, asking that Watkins and Dunn’s convictions be vacated.

A report from Dr. Shipla Reddy, a pediatric neurology medical director at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, was also included in that filing. She stated 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.”

The filing also noted that Watkins had told police she had spotted blood on Brandi’s underwear when she and Dunn picked her up from her sister’s home. According to reports, during the time she had been living with Williams, a Kentucky Department of Social Services worker visited the home after receiving a claim the child had been abused. Additionally, Harlan later conceded that the method used for diagnosing Brandi’s brain trauma was not in line with pediatric guidelines. In 2005, she and her husband were subject to professional discipline for serious misconduct. Charles Harlan was found guilty on 20 counts of misconduct and his license was revoked. Gretel Harlan was fined and reprimanded.

Gichner said Watkins, who rejected a plea deal to testify against Dunn, has always maintained her innocence, even after failed appeal attempts to overturn the verdict.

“The great thing about her is that she has this drive that she was never gonna let this go. ... She leads a very quiet life. You know, she’s not on the computer. She doesn’t read the newspaper. She doesn’t have a social media account. So it’s not as if Joyce was concerned about this because she was worried about what everybody was saying or thinking, I mean, this was for her.” When asked what her reaction was when the judge gave her that second chance at restoring her dignity, Gichner said, “I think it hit her a little bit then, and I think more so as a little bit of time has passed that, you know, ‘I did it. It took 35 years, but I did it.’”

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