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74-year-old Joyce Watkins was finally exonerated for the alleged murder and rape of her 4-year-old niece this week. The Tennesee native spent 27-years behind bars for the vicious crime, but now, new evidence discovered in the case has allowed Watkins to be set free, and her late boyfriend, Charlie Dunn, was posthumously exonerated.

On June 26, 1987, Watkins’ life changed forever. According to the case filing, she and Dunn went to pick up their niece, Brandi, after she had been staying with her great-aunt, Rose Williams, but a day later, they discovered the young tot unresponsive. They quickly rushed her to Nashville Memorial Hospital, where doctors discovered Brandi had sustained “severe vaginal injury and head trauma,” according to CNN. Young Brandi died a day later. While the couple had only been with her for nine hours, a medical examiner reviewing the case argued that the young girl had been injured that day. Around that same time, a social worker had stopped by to question Williams after receiving multiple reports of child abuse in the home. However, Williams claimed that Brandi had sustained minor injuries from falling down in a nearby playground.

Watkins and Dunn were convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated rape in August 1988 and spent over two decades in jail until they were granted parole in 2015. Dunn, unfortunately, passed away while serving his lengthy sentence.

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In an attempt to clear their names, Watkins sought out help from the Tennesee Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to exonerating innocent incarcerated individuals throughout the state, in addition to the Davidson County District Attorney’s office, CNN noted. Both teams helped to present a new counterclaim on behalf of Watkins, who said that she discovered blood in Brandi’s underwear “only an hour and a half after” she and Dunn had returned home and “with at least an hour of that time spent driving back to Nashville.” An official report was later filed in November 2021.

A thorough look into the DNA evidence also supported Watkins’ claims. Dr. Shipla Reddy told CNN that the methodology used to convict the couple back in 1987 was “not a legitimate method for dating pediatric head trauma,” since the conclusion was based “upon a lack of histiocytic response in the brain tissue.” According to Hopkins Medicine, “Histiocytosis” refers to a group of syndromes characterized by an abnormal increase in the number of certain immune cells called histiocytes

Watkins rejoiced with her legal team on Jan. 12, after Davidson County Criminal Judge, Angelita Blackshear Dalton, officially dismissed the case, dropping all charges against her and Dunn. The move was historic, marking Watkins as the first Black woman ever to be exonerated from the state of Tennessee. It’s unclear as to whether their families will receive financial compensation.
“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.”
While speaking with WZTV, Watkins said:

“I thank all the people for their prayers and helping me get out of this mess which has cost me half of my life for nothing, But I’ll get over it.”

Charlie’s daughter, Jackie Dunn, also celebrated the emotional win after the hearing. “I wish my daddy was here to witness this day,” she told local news station WTVF. “He knew he was innocent, he knew he did not commit those crimes.”

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