A Tennessee woman and her boyfriend have been exonerated — more than 30 years after they were wrongly convicted in the rape and murder of her four-year-old great niece.
“I’d like to thank all people for their prayers and just helping me to get out of this mess, which has cost me half of my life for nothing,” Joyce Watkins said on Wednesday after a judge overturned her conviction, according to WKRN.
Watkins and her then-boyfriend Charlie Dunn were convicted of the crime in 1988 and served 27 years in prison. Watkins was paroled in October of 2015. Dunn had been granted parole but died while waiting to be released in January of 2015.
Shortly before midnight on June 26, 1987, Watkins and Dunn left their home in Nashville and drove to Ft Campbell, Kentucky to pick up the girl, Brandi Danielle Jessie, from the home of another great aunt, Rose Williams. She had been staying with Williams for two months.
She was only in Watkins and Dunn’s care for nine hours.
One day after returning to Nashville, the couple took the child to Nashville Memorial Hospital after Watkins noticed blood in her underwear.
She was unconscious and emergency room doctors determined that she was suffering from a severe vaginal injury and head trauma, according to a recent report by the Davidson County Attorney General’s Office Conviction Review Unit reviewed by the Nashville Scene.
She was transferred to Vanderbilt University Hospital and placed on life support. She died two days later, on June 28.
Watkins and Dunn were eventually convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated rape in the case.
But the recent Conviction Review Unit report and the Nashville Innocence Project found that the prosecution and the evidence collected against the couple was seriously flawed. Both asked the court to vacate the convictions.
“The inescapable reality is that we may never know for certain what happened to cause the death of Brandi Danielle Jesse,” CRU director Sunny Eaton concludes in the report. “However, what is clear is that Joyce Watkins and Charles Dunn neither committed an aggravated rape of Brandi nor did they take any actions that caused her death.”
The report documented strange behavior by the toddler while in the other great-aunt Williams’s care, as well as several injuries and a lack of medical attention.
“Ms. Williams’s testified during the two months [Brandi] was in her care, the child suffered a variety of injuries and exhibited numerous abnormal behaviors,” according to the report. “This included testimony that [Brandi] was found drinking out of a toilet bowl and that she began spontaneously vomiting at the dinner table.”
Williams said Brandi was incapable of controlling her bladder and suffered daily from urinary, as well as intermittent fecal incontinence.
A social worker with the Kentucky Department of Social Services visited the Williams home after a report of physical abuse.
Williams lied and told her that the little girl was no longer in her care and had returned to her mother’s home in Georgia, according to the report.
"Miss Watkins — I'm going to take my mask off to tell you this. Miss Watkins, this charge against you is dismissed," Davidson County Criminal Judge Angelita Blackshear Dalton said, according to the Tennessean. "And to the family of Charlie Dunn, the charge against Charlie Dunn is dismissed."
Brandi’s mother, Lois Lockhart, told the Tennessean that moment was “bittersweet.”
"I'm happy for my aunt. We never believed that she did it," Lockhart said. "But it's still injustice to my daughter…I won't rest...It's time. It's been time."
Dunn’s family and friends also came out to witness his name being cleared.
"I wish my daddy was here to witness this day," Jackie Dunn, his daughter 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."
Others echoed similar comments.
"Charlie never got out of that prison cell before he died. They always knew they were innocent, their families always knew they were innocent, and now, today, everybody knows they're innocent," Jason Gichner, senior legal counsel for the Tennessee Innocence Project and Watkins' defense attorney told the Tennessean.
Watkins’s name was removed from the state’s sex offenders list after her conviction was overturned last week, according to the newspaper.