Joyce Watkins has been exonerated after fighting for nearly 35 years to clear her name.
The Tennessee native, who was wrongfully convicted of murdering her great-niece, spent 27 years in prison for the crime
On June 26, 1987, Watkins, and her boyfriend at the time, Charlie Dunn, went to pick up four-year-old Brandi in Kentucky, CNN reported.
The next morning, Brandi was found unresponsive. Watkins then took her to Nashville Memorial Hospital where doctors found that Brandi suffered from severe vaginal injury and head trauma. She was pronounced dead the following day.
A medical examiner determined that Brandi’s injuries were sustained during the nine hours she was with Watkins and Dunn.
In August 1988, the two were convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated rape.
Watkins and Dunn spent 27 years behind bars before they were both granted parole in 2015. Dunn, however, passed away in jail before his release.
In the years since her release, Watkins has focused on clearing her and Dunn’s name. With the help of the Tennessee Innocence Project and the Davidson County District Attorney’s Office, Watkins filed to have her and Dunn’s convictions vacated on November 10, 2021.
“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.’ ”
Back in 1987, Brandi was living at her great-aunt Rose William‘s home — Brandi’s mother was in Georgia at the time.
Prior to her being picked up by Watkins and Dunn, a social worker visited Brandi’s great aunt’s home after receiving a report of child abuse. Williams told the social worker that Brandi had sustained injuries while at the playground, and the case was closed shortly after, CNN reported.
In Watkins’ 2021 filing, it clarified that she’d noticed Brandi had blood in her underwear when she and Dunn arrived home in Nashville, only an hour and a half after the couple picked her up. The report also included testimony from pediatric expert Dr. Shilpa Reddy, who said the original medical examiner’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 ruling additionally noted that the medical examiner conceded the error in her methodology years after the trial.
“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.”
Watkins is the first Black woman to ever be exonerated in Tennessee and only the third woman in state history, CNN reported.