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After being sentenced to life in prison in a 1988 rape and murder case, a Tennessee woman has been exonerated of the charges.
Joyce Watkins, 74, and her boyfriend at the time, Charlie Dunn, were convicted in a 1988 trial of first-degree murder and aggravated rape of Watkins’ four-year-old great-niece.
On June 26, 1987, Watkins and Dunn picked up the great-niece, Brandi, from another family relative in Kentucky. Within a couple of hours of arriving back home in Tennessee, Watkins noticed blood in Brandi’s underwear. The next morning the child was unresponsive, so Watkins and Dunn immediately took her to Nashville Memorial Hospital.
Brandi suffered from severe vaginal injury and head trauma and died a day later. The medical examiner, Dr. Gretel Harlan, determined that the injuries were sustained during the short time that the child was with Watkins and Dunn.
The following year, Watkins and Dunn were convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated rape.
Cleared of murder after nearly three decades
The two spent 27 years behind bars before they both were granted parole in 2015. Ultimately, Dunn died suddenly before being released.
After her release, Watkins sought the help of the Tennessee Innocence Project.
“We got this case because she (Joyce) came to us,” Jason Gichner, senior legal counsel with the Tennessee Innocence Project told CNN. “She just showed up at the office and said, ‘Let me tell you my story. I need your help.’”
To date, there have been over 2,800 exonerations of both men and women in the U.S. according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Black men and women make up 47 percent of that number and are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than white people.
An error leads to decades of years stolen
Dunn was also cleared of the crime and posthumously exonerated. His daughter, Jackie Dunn, was at the hearing last week.
“I wish my daddy was here to witness this day,” she said. “He knew he was innocent, he knew he didn’t commit those crimes.”
A report from Dr. Shipla Reddy was also included in the filing. She 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.
“Joyce Watkins and Charlie Dunn are innocent,” District Attorney Glenn Funk told CNN after the two were exonerated, “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.”