Being charged with a crime you didn’t commit is an absolute nightmare for anyone. When that charge is for killing one of your very own loved ones? Even worse. Twenty-seven years ago the courts put Joyce Watkins behind bars for allegedly killing her great-niece. This past week her name was finally cleared. This is her story.
Joyce Watkins Charged With Killing Her Great-Niece Finally Exonerated
Earlier this month, 74-year-old Joyce Watkins was exonerated for a crime that she and her boyfriend were wrongly convicted for several decades ago. Joyce spent 27 years in prison before being let out on parole. Her husband, unfortunately, passed before he was set free. The crime? Raping and murdering their four-year-old great-niece Brandi. (1)
The Fateful Day
On June 26, 1987, Joyce and her boyfriend, Charlie Dunn went to pick up little Brandi from Brandi’s other great-aunt Rose William at her home in Kentucky. Joyce said she noticed a small amount of blood in the child’s underwear, but it was late and she thought she’d look into more the next day. The next day, however, she didn’t have the chance: When she went to wake Brandi, she found the child unresponsive. The couple immediately took the little girl to Nashville Memorial Hospital. (2)
The doctors found that Brandi was suffering from a severe vaginal injury and head trauma. They pronounced her officially dead the next day. Joyce and Charlie had only had Brandi under their care for nine hours, but the examiner determined that she sustained the injuries during that time. A year later in August 1988, the couple was convicted of aggravated rape and first-degree murder. They spent 27 years in jail until they were granted parole in 2015. Sadly, Charlie passed away in jail shortly before his release.
Brandi’s mother was living in Georgia at the time and Brandi was living with her great-aunt Rose William. While Rose was taking care of her, a Kentucky Department of Social Services worker received reports of abuse happening in the home and visited the house. Rose told the worker that Brandi had simply had an accident while at the playground, which is how she sustained her injuries. The worker left and the case was closed. We now know that Rose was lying.
Joyce Watkins Exonerated
Joyce lost nearly three decades of her life for a crime she did not commit. Charles, sadly, never again saw life outside of prison. Joyce has been on parole since 2015, but she did not want to simply settle for life on parole. She wanted to clear her name as well as Charles’. She got help from the Tennessee Innocence Project as well as the Davidson County District Attorney’s office. They filed a report requesting exoneration in mid-November of last year.
In their report, they included the fact that Joyce noticed the blood in Brandi’s underwear an hour and a half after they picked her up. At least one full hour of that time they had spent driving. They also included mention of how the method the examiner used to date Brandi’s head trauma is known to not produce accurate results in young children.
“(The previous doctor’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.” Dr. Shipla Reddy’s report stated in the file.
Finally, on January 12 of this year, Davidson County Criminal Court Judge, Angelita Blackshear Dalton exonerated both Joyce and Charles of the crime. This makes Joyce the first black woman to ever be exonerated in the state and the third woman in Tennessee history.