She Spent 27 Years In Prison For A Rape And Murder She Didn’t Commit. Now, At 74, She’s Exonerated.
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More than 30 years ago, on June 26, 1987, Joyce Watkins, who at the time was in her late 30s, went with her then-boyfriend Charlie Dunn to pick up her four-year-old great-niece Brandi.

The next morning, Brandi was unresponsive and taken to Nashville Memorial Hospital, where she was pronounced dead a day later due to head trauma. She also had injuries to her vagina.

Even though Watkins and Dunn only had Brandi in their care for nine hours, the medical examiner, Dr. Gretel Harlan, determined the injuries occurred during that time, CNN reported.

A year later, Watkins and Dunn were convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated rape, each spending 27 years in prison before being granted parole in 2015. Dunn, however, died before he was released.

CNN reported that Brandi had been living with her great aunt, Rose Williams, and that a social worker had been called to Williams’ home after a complaint of child abuse. Williams told the social worker that Brandi had gotten her injuries at the playground and the social worker closed the case.

“In a report filed with the Davidson County Criminal Court, Watkins said she noticed that Brandi had blood in her underwear when she and Dunn brought her home to Nashville. The report also included testimony from pediatric expert Dr. Shilpa Reddy, who called into question the medical examiner’s methodology,” Insider reported.

CNN noted that the methodology used to determine the time of Brandi’s head injury “is not a legitimate method for dating pediatric head trauma,” according to Reddy’s report.

“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.”

Nearly thirty-five years after Brandi’s death, Watkins has been exonerated. Dunn was also exonerated posthumously. Dunn’s daughter Jack told NewsChannel5 on the day of her father’s hearing that she wished “my daddy was here to witness this day.”

“He knew he was innocent, he knew he did not commit those crimes,” she added.

Watkins reached out to the Tennessee Innocence Project to clear her name, as well as the Davidson County District Attorney’s Office.

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

With the help of the TIP, Watkins filed a report on November 10, 2021, asking that she and Dunn be exonerated. The filing noted that Watkins had noticed blood in Brandi’s underwear when they arrived home with her just an hour and a half after she and Dunn picked her up back in 1987. Reddy’s report was also included in the filing and noted that the original medical examiner, Dr. Harlan, conceded she had made an error years after Watkins and Dunn were convicted.

“Miss Watkins, this charge against you is dismissed,” Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Angelita Blackshear Dalton reportedly said when exonerating Watkins. It is unclear whether Watkins or Dunn’s family will receive compensation for their wrongful conviction.

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