NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — A Middle Tennessee woman is heading to the Super Bowl one year after her exoneration for a wrongful conviction that landed her in prison for 27 years.
Joyce Watkins will never forget the moment she was surprised by Tennessee Titans officials during halftime at a football game.
“I screamed and hollered so loud,” she recalled. “I just cried because I’ve always wanted to go for Super Bowl. But I knew I would never be able to go.”
The word “never” is surprising coming from her because she’s lived more by the word “hope” through an experience most couldn’t ever imagine. Watkins spent 27 years in prison for a crime she did not commit.
“I knew I was wrongly convicted from the beginning but I didn’t expect to go to prison behind it,” she said.
Back in 1987, Watkins’ four-year-old great-niece had signs of physical and sexual trauma and died after Watkins took her to the hospital. Both Watkins and her boyfriend Charlie Dunn were convicted and sentenced to life for murder, but they always maintained their innocence.
“I didn’t focus on what was going on in there. I kept my life focus on what was going on out inside of the prison walls. I didn’t let it get me down,” said Watkins. “I prayed about it a lot, you know, to get out one day. And I’ve always felt like if I got out I will somehow prove my innocence.”
Both were exonerated in 2015, seven years after Dunn died in prison and the same year Watkins was released on parole.
“It was a lot of hurt to my family and during that time, I lost most of my family,” said Watkins.
As the first Black woman in Tennessee to be exonerated, Watkins is helping the Tennessee Innocence Project work to bring justice for every person just like her.
“There are people that I was incarcerated with that they always talk about the innocence from day one,” she said.
It’s that mentality that led the Titans to name her an Inspire Change Changemaker after finding her through their Wesley Mortgage Community Hero Program.
“I’ve always loved the Titans,” she said, adding she’s a huge football fan in general and already knows who she wants to win the Super Bowl. “I like lil Patrick Mahomes. We kind of like the same — we don’t give up on something. We don’t stop till we succeed.”
It’s a mindset she lives with every day to the Super Bowl and beyond.
“One in a million in my lifetime to go to the Super Bowl,” she said. “God granted that to me and I’m very, very excited.”