SWINDLE COLUMN: After 35 years, Tennessee woman gets conviction overturned

Published 9:30 am Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Make no mistake, it’s not revenge he’s after, it’s a reckoning.” – Doc Holliday

Being incarcerated for a crime that a person did not commit almost always creates bitterness and a desire for revenge. Yet, revenge is similar to an addiction. A person cannot seek enough revenge to ever be satisfied.

A reckoning is much different. There is a finality and completion that comes with a reckoning. It means things are coming to a head and there is an inescapable point that must be faced.

A Tennessee woman who was wrongfully convicted of murdering her great-niece illustrates this.

On June 26, 1987, Joyce Watkins, now 74, and her boyfriend at the time, Charlie Dunn, went to pick up Joyce’s four-year-old great-niece, Brandi, in Kentucky.

Prior to Brandi being picked up by the couple, she was living at the home of Rose Williams; Brandi’s great-aunt.

Throughout that period, a Kentucky Department of Social Services worker visited the home after receiving a report Brandi had been abused. Williams explained that Brandi’s injuries were due to a playground mishap, and the investigation was closed.

As the couple drove to Tennessee, they noticed that Brandi was not well. Joyce noticed blood in Brandi’s underwear when they arrived home, only an hour and a half after the couple picked her up, with at least an hour of that time spent driving back to Nashville.

The next morning, Brandi was unresponsive. So, Joyce rushed her to Nashville Memorial Hospital.

Brandi suffered from a severe vaginal injury and head trauma. She was pronounced dead the following day. Joyce and Charlie were with Brandi for only nine hours.

August 1988 — A criminal investigation begins almost immediately and a jury finds them guilty of first-degree murder and aggravated rape.

The two spend 27 years behind bars before they were both granted parole in 2015.

The verdict was primarily based on the testimony of Dr. Gretel Harlan. Dr. Harlan’s expert testimony was completely inaccurate. She concluded the injuries were sustained during those nine hours.

However, a report from the well known Dr. Shipla Reddy said that 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.”

Dr. Reddy was correct.

Today, Harlan admits the error in her methodology years after the trial.

Unfortunately, as Charlie was waiting for his parole hearing, he suddenly passed away in prison.

Joyce reaches out to the Tennessee Innocence Project and the Davidson County District Attorney’s Office. After decades of suffering, she just wants to clear her name. Both decide to assist.

Thirty-five years later, Joyce’s convictions dismissed. Her selflessness prompts her to ask that Charlie be cleared as well. Her request is granted and he is posthumously exonerated.

“Joyce Watkins and Charlie Dunn are innocent,” District Attorney Glenn Funk told news outlets, “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.”

Joyce said, “I thank all the people for their prayers and helping me get out of this mess which has cost me half of my life for nothing, but I’ll get over it.”

Joyce Watkins did not seek revenge against anyone. Joyce sought and created a true reckoning.