74-Year-Old Black Woman Exonerated for the Murder of Her Niece After Spending 27 Years in Prison

·3 min read
Screenshot:  WZTV
Screenshot: WZTV

We’re only one month into the new year, and we’ve already seen some daunting cases of wrongful convictions being vacated after exonerees have already spent decades in prison.

Joyce Watkins, a 74-year-old Black woman from Nashville, Tennessee, has been exonerated after spending 27 years in prison for the murder of her four-year-old niece in 1987, according to CNN.

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There have not been a plethora of Black women exonerated; the majority of exonerations in 2021 were of Black men.

But truth be told, exonerations of Black women have been an underreported outcome, since Black men have made up a majority of the overall exonerations since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

After three decades, Watkins made a strong effort to exonerate herself, and eventually succeeded.

CNN has more details on Watkins’ conviction:

On June 26, 1987, Joyce Watkins, now 74, and her boyfriend at the time, Charlie Dunn, went to pick up Watkins’ four-year-old great-niece, Brandi, in Kentucky, according to a report filed with the Davidson County Criminal Court.

The next morning Brandi was unresponsive, so Watkins took her to Nashville Memorial Hospital.

Brandi suffered from severe vaginal injury and head trauma. She was pronounced dead the following day, the report stated. The two were with Brandi for only nine hours, but the medical examiner, Dr. Gretel Harlan, concluded the injuries were sustained during that time.

A year later, in August 1988, Watkins and Dunn were convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated rape.

The two spent 27 years behind bars before they were both granted parole in 2015.

Before his release, Dunn, unfortunately, passed away in jail.

Prior to Brandi being picked up by the couple, she was living at the home of Rose Williams, Brandi’s great-aunt. Brandi’s mother was in Georgia at the time.

Throughout that period, a Kentucky Department of Social Services worker visited the home after receiving a report Brandi had been abused.

Williams explained Brandi’s injuries Brandi were due to a playground mishap, and the investigation was closed.

So all this begs the question: why were Watkins’ and Dunn’s cases not reconsidered or revisited if it was determined where the niece’s injuries came from?

Watkins’ boyfriend at the time, Charlie Dunn, was also convicted of rape and murder. He was posthumously exonerated since he died just before he was released on parole in 2015, according to CNN.

Watkins received help from the Tennessee Innocence Project and the Davidson County District Attorney’s Office. On November 10, 2021, a report was filed asking that Watkins’ and Dunn’s convictions be vacated.

More from CNN:

The filing clarified Watkins noticed blood in Brandi’s underwear when they arrived home, only an hour and a half after the couple picked her up, with at least an hour of that time spent driving back to Nashville.

A report from Dr. Shipla Reddy was also included in the filing, who said Dr. Harlan’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 noted Harlan conceded the error in her methodology years after the trial.

Watkins is the first Black woman in the history of Tennessee to be exonerated and only the third woman overall, per the story from CNN.

It is not yet clear if Watkins’ or Dunn’s family will ask for compensation, according to CNN.

“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,” Watkins said, according to WZTV.