NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — After more than 30 years, Joyce Watkins and Charlie Dunn have been cleared of their convictions involving murder and rape of Watkins' 4-year-old great-niece Brandi.
The report from the district attorney Conviction Review Unit indicated how these convictions were partly a result of an aggressive and at times dishonest prosecution.
A hearing was held on Wednesday at 9 a.m. where Judge Angelita Blackshear Dalton shared her official ruling to dismiss the charges against them. As a result, Watkins is no longer listed on Tennessee's Sex Offender Registry.
"It's been a long struggle, but I want to thank the DA's office. I want to thank Mr. Gichner here with the Tennessee Innocence Project and all the people for their prayers and just helping me to get out of this mess which cost me half of my life for nothing," Watkins said.
Jackie Dunn said she understood Ms. Watkins' frustration because of all her father lost just before he died.
"It's a bittersweet day. I wish my daddy was here to witness this day. 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," Dunn said.
The Tennessee Innocence Project helped reopen the case, and the DA's Conviction Review Unit, which analyzed the evidence from the 80s. Attorney Jason Gichner said none of this would have been possible without the continued collaboration with the CRU.
"These kinds of cases where people are wrongfully convicted shouldn't be adversarial. We welcome the opportunity to work with prosecutors across the state to identify and do something about wrongful convictions," Gichner said.
The case began unfolding in 1987 when the couple picked Brandi up from another family member's home where she had been staying for two months.
Watkins said she brought the girl back to Nashville and nine hours later, Brandi was unconscious. She noticed blood in Brandi's underwear and signs of bruising. Doctors found signs of rape and trauma, which attorneys determined was enough to charge both Watkins and Dunn.
New experts testified last month that the original medical examiners used discredited methods not rooted in science to suggest Brandi was in the care of Watkins and Dunn when she was raped.
A 44-page report from the CRU and attorney Sunny Eaton went on to show there was unreliable testimony, misrepresented facts to the jury and faulty medical conclusions. Other than the fact that Dunn was a male in Brandi's presence shortly before her death, "there is utterly no evidence suggesting Mr. Dunn's guilt," according to the report.
Judge Dalton agreed there was no compelling scientific evidence that Watkins and Dunn committed the crimes and that the medical report at the time was inaccurate.
Before she dismissed the convictions, Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk told the court that it's clear the wrong people were behind bars for all these years.
"The mandate of the district attorney's office is to do justice always. In a system devised and run by humans, we must recognize that wrongful convictions occur," Funk said.
Funk said while they cannot give Joyce Watkins and Charlie Dunn time back, they can restore their names. Their innocence demands it.
Dunn died in prison while awaiting parole. Watkins served 27 years in prison and was granted parole in 2015.
The Dunn and Watkins family have been close since the beginning, but even closer since last month. That's when for the first time they heard Watkins was offered a deal to testify against Dunn and avoid prison. She declined. When asked why? She said, "because Charlie was innocent. We were innocent."
"They always knew they were innocent. Their families knew they were innocent and now today, everybody knows they're innocent," Gichner said.
This makes five convictions overturned by Nashville's Conviction Review Unit since they first began in 2017. The Nashville CRU remains the only unit of it's kind in the state.