For 35 years, Joyce Watkins has maintained her innocence in the death of her 4-year-old great niece, for which she spent 27 years in prison.
On Jan. 12, the state of Tennessee finally acknowledged that she had been wrongly convicted, making Watkins the first Black woman – and only the third woman overall – to be exonerated by the state, CNN reports.
In June 1987, Watkins and her then boyfriend Charlie Dunn picked her great niece Brandi up from the Kentucky home of another aunt where the toddler had been living for two months. Nine hours later, after they had made their way back to Nashville, when she found the little girl unconscious, Watkins noticed blood in her underwear and bruising on her body.
She rushed Brandi to Nashville Memorial Hospital, where doctors found signs of severe vaginal injury and head trauma. She died the next day.
The signs of sexual assault were used to charge Dunn and Watkins with first-degree murder and aggravated rape. They were convicted and sent to prison in August 1988.
Watkins was released on parole 27 years later and had to have her name listed on Tennessee’s Sex Offender Registry. Dunn, on the other hand, died in prison while awaiting parole.
Late last year, Watkins approached the Tennessee Innocence Project to help her clear her name as well as Dunn’s. In November, they filed an official request to have both convictions vacated.
“She just showed up at the office and said, ‘Let me tell you my story. I need your help’,” explained Jason Gichner, the Project’s senior legal counsel.
From there, the organization had the Davidson County District Attorney’s Office reopen the case. The DA’s Conviction Review Unit then proceeded to reexamine the evidence that had been used to convict Dunn and Watkins.
According to News Channel 5, new experts had testified in December that the methods used to determine the time of Brandi’s assault were not rooted in science. The report when on to say that, other than the fact that he was a man and he had been in the little girl’s presence, “there is utterly no evidence suggesting Mr. Dunn’s guilt.”
Judge Angelita Blackshear Dalton agreed that nothing that had been presented during their original trial was enough to prover Dunn and Watkins’ guilt. And Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk state in court that it was clear to him that the wrong people had been sent to prison.