NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – The Davidson County District Attorney’s Office says a couple convicted of child rape and murder in 1987 is innocent and the conviction should be overturned.
Joyce Watkins and her late boyfriend, Charlie Dunn, spent 27 years in prison.
Watkins’ 4-year-old great-niece was staying with family back in 1987. When Watkins and her boyfriend went to pick the child up, they noticed signs of physical and sexual trauma. Watkins took her to the hospital, where the little girl was put on life support and died the next day. Watkins and Dunn were then taken to jail and convicted the following year.
For decades, the couple maintained their innocence. Friday, Judge Angelita Blackshear Dalton heard the evidence behind those claims.
“Are you innocent of these charges?” a prosecutor asked Joyce Watkins. “Oh, yes I am. Yes. Yes. Yes.”
Now 74 years old, Watkins is asking the court to vindicate not only her name but that of her then-boyfriend Charlie Dunn.
“Did Charlie do anything whatsoever to harm Brandy?” asked the prosecutor. “No. No. No,” Watkins responds.
The Tennessee Innocence Project and prosecutors with the Conviction Review Unit, established under District Attorney General Glenn Funk, claim misrepresentation of evidence to the jury led to Dunn and Watkins’ wrongful 1987 conviction.
“It’s exclusively a circumstantial evidence case that was based on medical testimony that was wrong,” Funk says.
Tennessee’s Chief Medical Examiner, Adele Lewis, took the stand testifying the state’s then-assistant medical examiner Dr. Gretel Harlan presented faulty findings, even using incorrect medical terminology in the autopsy report.
“Is there any medical evidence, at all, which supports her opinion on the timeline?” asks the attorney. “No,” Lewis responds.
“Is there any medical evidence, at all, which tells you that these injuries happened while the child was in the care of Joyce Watkins or Sharlie Dunn?” Lewis again responds, “No.”
At the time of the trial, Gretel Harlan was married to the then-chief medical examiner, Dr. Charles Harlan.
He approved the report. Charles was later found guilty of 20 counts of misconduct and his medical license was permanently revoked in 2005.
“We can’t give these people justice, but we can acknowledge what happened to them and we can finally clear their names,” a prosecutor told the court.
Family members attended the hearing, including the little girl’s mother who told News 2, “we hope it’s a great outcome.”
While waiting for the elevator she could be heard saying, “I just feel so bad. We never, ever, believed they did anything.”
Judge Angelita Blackshear Dalton will review the evidence presented Friday and decide whether to vacate the convictions “hopefully really soon.”
News 2 reached out to then-Davidson County District Attorney General Torry Johnson for comment. He sent the following statement:
“I am unfamiliar with any of the specifics of this case or the claim that the defendants are actually innocent, and so I am unable to comment or answer the questions posed. I would add that cases such as this are particularly difficult due to the passage of time, faded memories, the deaths of defendants, witnesses, and other participants, the lack of definitive evidence like DNA, and other factors. Obviously, much has changed since this case was investigated and tried in an effort to constantly improve the system and to prevent a wrongful conviction, but no system is perfect. If, in fact, this case was wrongly decided, it should be remedied, but I am not in a position to express an opinion.”Former Davidson County District Attorney General Torry Johnson