Nashville DA seeks to overturn couple’s 1988 wrongful conviction

joyce watkins in court
Posted at 6:30 PM, Dec 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-03 20:25:54-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Nashville prosecutors say inaccurate and misleading evidence are just some of the reasons why Joyce Watkins and Charlie Dunn deserve to have their 1988 convictions vacated.

Judge Angelita Dalton did not give a timeline for when we can expect her decision on whether to vacate the charges based on testimony Friday.

On Friday, Watkins took the stand for the first time in years to clear her name and that of Dunn. Both were charged and convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated rape of Watkins' 4-year-old niece Brandi.

She’s maintained her innocence and never changed her story, even with a life sentence hanging in the balance. Watkins told a packed courtroom that she turned down a plea deal to testify against Dunn and save herself from prison.

It was the first time the Dunn family heard such an admission in the more than 30 years since the trial. They didn’t have much to say after court, other than this reaffirming their trust in Watkins.

Watkins was released from prison in 2015. The same year that Dunn died of cancer while still in custody. Watkins has been on parole ever since. She’s a registered sex offender, can’t vote, and can’t leave the state without permission.

She was asked by her attorney Jason Gichner of the Tennessee Innocence Project how many polygraph tests she’d taken while out on parole. Watkins said she took eight and passed all eight times. She was cooperative during the investigation and even invited officers into her home to take the child's bedsheet.

“Thirty-three years have passed and it's time we say enough. We can’t give these people justice, but we can acknowledge what happened to them and we can finally clear their names,” Gichner said.

The 44-page report by Nashville’s Conviction Review Unit detailed what happened that day when Watkins picked Brandi up from another family member’s home. Brandi had been staying in that home for two months. Watkins says she traveled from Nashville to Fort Campbell, picked the girl up and Brandi was unconscious nine hours later. She noticed blood in Brandi’s underwear and signs of bruising.

Doctors determined there were signs of rape and trauma, which was enough to charge both Watkins and Dunn. Former medical examiner Dr. Gretal Harlan initially claimed that she believed Brandi was abused within 24-48 hours of being admitted to the hospital.

Just before the court, she changed her opinion to a window of 12-14 hours, which conveniently narrowed the gap around the time Watkins and Dunn had Brandi in their possession.

State medical examiner Adele Lewis testified Friday that the findings by Harlan were not based on science. Harlan was said to have estimated the time of injury by what she saw on the child’s skin, rather than using trusted medical techniques.

Lewis was asked by Gichner if there is “any medical evidence at all that tells you these injuries happened while this child was in the care of Joyce Watkins and Charlie Dunn?” Lewis replied simply, “no.” Lewis went on to say she did not believe Harlan’s findings were supported by science.

CRU director Sunny Eaton added in her report that while we may never know what happened to cause the death of Brandi, “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.”

Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk agreed with the Tennessee Innocence Project and the CRU that it’s time these charges were cleared.

“I believe they are innocent. I cannot give them the years of their life back, but I can do what is possible to clear their names and as far as Ms. Watkins goes... restore her liberty completely for the rest of her life,” Funk said.

The Conviction Review Unit earlier this year overturned the conviction of Paul Shane Garret after he spent 29 years behind bars. The office has had three convictions overturned since its inception back in 2017.