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Crime News

Elderly Tennessee Woman Who Spent 27 Years In Prison For Niece’s 1987 Murder Exonerated

"I'm just happy to be out of this mess, which has cost me half of my life for nothing," Joyce Watkins, 74, said in a statement after a judge vacated her conviction this month. 

By Dorian Geiger

An 74-year-old Tennessee woman, who was wrongfully convicted in the 1987 murder and sexual assault of her four-year-old neice, was exonerated this month.

Joyce Watkins, 74, was cleared of all charges in the rape and murder of her niece, Brandi Danielle Jessie, after spending 27 years in prison, according to a court order to vacate their convictions, which Oxygen.com obtained. Charlie Dunn, Watkins’ former boyfriend, who died in prison in 2015, also had his conviction tossed.

"I'm just happy to be out of this mess, which has cost me half of my life for nothing," Watkins, said in a statement contained in a Tennessee Innocence Project press release sent to Oxygen.com following the judge’s ruling. "But I'll get over it. I thank God for me being able to do this."

The ruling was announced on Jan. 12 in Davidson County Criminal Court.

“Miss Watkins — I'm going to take my mask off to tell you this. Miss Watkins, this charge against you is dismissed," Judge Angelita Blackshear Dalton said during proceedings, according to the Tennessean. "And to the family of Charlie Dunn, the charge against Charlie Dunn is dismissed."

Joyce Watkins Pd

For decades, Watkins, who had maintained her innocence, had fought unsuccessfully to have her case dismissed. 

“While there is no way to ever give Joyce and Charlie justice, we can celebrate this ruling and their innocence,” Jason Gichner, Watkins’ attorney and senior legal counsel for the Tennessee Innocence Project told Oxygen.com in a statement. “It is heartbreaking to know that two people spent 27 years in prison for a crime they did not commit.”

On June 26, 1987, Watkins and Dunn drove from Nashville to Fort Campbell, Kentucky to pick up Watkins’ niece from the home of another relative, Rose Williams. The girl had been staying at the home for about two months. 

Two days later, the child was hospitalized in Nashville after Watkins observed blood in the child’s underwear. She’d been in her great aunt’s care for nine hours. Doctors discovered she’d sustained head trauma and a serious vaginal injury, according to prosecutors. Jessie was placed on life support and later died.

A medical examiner concluded that the injuries the 4-year-old suffered had occurred during the 9-hour window she’d been with Wakins and Dunn. 

Watkins and Dunn were convicted on Aug. 5, 1988 following a jury trial. The pair were subsequently sentenced to life in prison. They were also slapped with a concurrent 60-year sentence stemming from aggravated rape charges.

In 1993, Watkins and Dunn both applied for and were denied post-conviction relief. In January 2015, Dunn died in prison. The same year, Watkins was freed, however the wrongfully convicted woman was forced to register as sex offender within the state.

Last year, Watkins began working with the Tennessee Innocence Project in an effort to have her conviction tossed out for good. 

"We got this case because she (Joyce) came to us," Gichner also told CNN. "She just showed up at the office and said, 'Let me tell you my story. I need your help.'"

The Nashville District Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Review Unit, which opened a renewed investigation into the case, later discovered that a significant portion of the case’s medical used to convict Watkins and Dunn was false.

"Joyce Watkins and Charlie Dunn are innocent,” Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk told Oxygen.com in a statement. “My office strives to do justice always. That means recognizing that wrongful convictions, while rare, have occurred and must be remedied.  We cannot give Ms. Watkins or Mr. Dunn their lost years but we can restore their dignity. Their innocence demands it." 

Charlie Dunn Pd

The Conviction Review Unit, which conducted a “holistic review” of the case, published an expansive report totaling more than 100 pages, discrediting the jury’s findings during the 1988 trial. 

“Our duty as the District Attorney’s Office is not just to secure convictions, it is to do justice,” Sunny Eaton, Director of the Conviction Review Unit for the Nashville District Attorney's Office also told Oxygen.com in a statement. “It is to make sure we get it right. The passage of time is not a factor. If we find a person has been wrongfully convicted, correcting that tragedy becomes our highest priority. We owe that to victims, we owe that to their families and we owe it to those facing the system.”

Dunn’s family, who also attended courtroom proceedings this month in Davidson County, were equally elated by the judge’s ruling exonerating the late Tennessee man. 

"I wish my daddy was here to witness this day," Jackie Dunn told WTVF. "He knew he was innocent, he knew he did not commit those crimes."