NASHVILLE, TN – Criminal Court Judge Angelita Dalton exonerated Joyce Watkins and Charlie Dunn today, reversing their 1988 convictions for aggravated rape and felony murder of a 4-year-old girl, Brandi X.
The little girl was with them for 9 hours, according to Tennessee Innocence Project Senior Counsel Jason Gichner. They picked Brandi up from relatives in Kentucky and on the drive back to Nashville they realized something was wrong.
They called Brandi’s mother in Georgia and told them something wasn’t right with her. By morning, she was worse and they took her to the hospital.
“And she never got out of the hospital. She died soon after that,” Gichner said. Dunn and Watkins always maintained Brandi was injured before they picked her up.
“The main reason they got convicted is because the medical examiner told the jury ‘well all these injuries must have happened during the window of time the child was with Joyce and Charlie.’ And the science she based that on was just wrong,” Gichner said.
“They spoke to the police multiple times without even having a lawyer because their position was ‘we haven’t done anything wrong. We want to find out what happened.’ They didn’t’ even think they needed a lawyer. Joyce let them in her house to collect ‘whatever evidence you want. We’ll cooperate any way that you need us to’.”’
Watkins and Dunn were convicted on the erroneous medical testimony of Dr. Gretel Harlan. She later recanted her testimony in a post-conviction hearing in 1994. New scientific methods had been developed that showed Harlan’s method of determining the timing of the girl’s injuries and the biological evidence she relied on regarding the brain injury was wrong. In short, Harlan misled the jury. It was quite possible Brandi had been hurt before they picked her up.
Furthermore, a bed sheet was not shown to the jury because the prosecutor said Watkins had washed or destroyed it. In fact, she had done neither. It was in with all the other dirty laundry.
The prosecutor did not put the bed sheet into evidence. He didn’t have it. The forensics squad never collected it. If they had, the defense could have examined it and challenged the prosecutor’s version in court.
But lack of evidence didn’t stop him from arguing Dunn had picked Brandi up and brought her into the master bedroom where he beat and raped her and Watkins did nothing to stop him.
“This office strives to do justice always. That includes recognizing wrongful convictions occur and to remedy them when possible. We can not give Joyce Watkins or Charlie Dunn back time, but we can restore their names. Their innocence demands it,” said Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk.
Thirty-four years later Watkins has finally cleared her name. She was released on parole in 2015. Dunn died in prison in 2015 while serving a life sentence. The prosecutor in the case, Richard Fisher, is reportedly now in his 80s, retired, and lives in Florida.