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‘Restore Her Dignity’: Evidence by Now Disgraced Medical Examiners Sealed a Tennessee Couple’s Fate In the 1985 Death of a 4-Year-Old, Now the 74-Year-Old Woman Is Finally Exonerated

After spending 27 years in prison for a rape and murder she did not commit, a 74-year-old woman is now exonerated after a hearing a Nashville court last week. The name of her boyfriend, who died of cancer before he could see life outside of a prison cell, is also cleared of the same two crimes.

Joyce Watkins, 74, and her boyfriend Charlie Dunn were wrongfully convicted in 1988 of murdering her great-niece, Brandi Jessie. 

Joyce Watkins (left), Charles Dunn (Credit: Tennessee Innocence Project)

On June 26, 1987, the couple brought Brandi from where she was staying in Kentucky to their home in Tennessee. The next morning, they found the 4-year-old unresponsive.

Watkins took the child to Nashville Memorial Hospital, where it was determined the child suffered head trauma and severe vaginal injury. The girl was transferred to Vanderbilt University Hospital and placed on life support before being pronounced dead the next day.

Brandi was only in the custody of the couple for nine hours before she was brought to the hospital, but Dr. Gretel Harlan, the medical examiner at the time in Davidson County, determined that her injuries were suffered during her time with Watkins and Dunn.

According to the prosecution at the time, the couple killed and sexually assaulted the girl. The two were convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated rape in August of 1988, always maintaining their innocence and appealed their case in 1990. 

Unfortunately, the Court of Criminal Appeals did not believe their testimony and affirmed the conviction. The two were sentenced to life in prison.

In 2015, the two were granted parole, however, Dunn died while incarcerated awaiting his parole decision. The state now admits it was wrong and the child’s injuries were sustained before the couple picked her up.

An investigation currently concludes the girl was injured even while under the care of another great-aunt on her mother’s side in Kentucky, Watkins’ sister Rose Williams.

Williams at the time testified Brandi was just a sickly child. She stated while under her care, the girl suffered a “variety of injuries and exhibited numerous abnormal behavior,” including “drinking out the toilet bowl.” “vomiting at the dinner table,” “urinary and fecal incontinence,” and “lost consciousness” twice during her time in Kentucky.

Ms. Fetterman, Williams’ neighbor, said that even at 4 years old, the girl seemed miserable with possible medical issues. The picture presented to investigators was that the girl was a problem.

The week before Brandi’s death, Williams repeatedly called her sister asking her to come and get the child. She called her until she finally retrieved the girl.

At first, Williams denied calling the couple to get the girl but eventually confessed she did. She also acknowledged to authorities that the girl was under her supervision for two months before leaving to stay with Watkins and Dunn.

The couple came to get the child and noticed that she was bleeding in her underwear and a black eye on their ride back to Nashville. Phone records confirm that Watkins called Brandi’s grandmother about the girl’s perceived illness, calling 1.5 hours after getting her.

Shortly after, they took their niece to the hospital and she died within a day. Suspicious arose around her death involving head trauma and sexual assault and Watkin and Dunn were the only ones considered as suspects after what became a cursory investigation of the people Kentucky who had been around the girl.

A review of the records shows that Watkins and Dunn were always very cooperative with law enforcement, and Dunn even submitted DNA samples that were compared with samples from her bed and hair. The DNA was excluded as a source to the samples on the girl.

Evidence that linked the couple to the case was rendered by Dr. Gretel Harlan, assistant medical examiner. Court documents state that Harlan initially said that the child’s fatal injuries occurred 24-48 hours before her death. Right before the trial, in the hallway, she changed her opinion on when she was hurt, court records show. Her new medical opinion was that Watkins and Dunn victimized the girl.

Dr. Charles Harlan, Harlan’s husband, was the state’s chief medical examiner at the time and approved the child’s autopsy report to support his wife.

In 2005, The Harlans were subject to professional discipline for serious misconduct. Charles was found guilty on 20 counts of misconduct and his license was revoked. His wife Gretel was fined and reprimanded. She retired that same year.

This information was never taken in consideration in the Watkins and Dunn criminal case.

Other evidence was either overlooked or not investigated. Special Agent Deborah Becker and Sergeant John Schroder stated that the “investigation efforts do not stand up to scrutiny and were minimal at best.” 

According to the court record, someone at a bible camp the child attended reported to state authorities that Brandi had welts on her back and a swollen hand.

When approached by a Kentucky Department of Social Service social worker about reports of possible abuse, Williams actually lied about the girl being abused under her care and in her custody. She also didn’t mention that the girl spent time with the neighbor, Fetterman, who had her husband and two sons, one 15 years old and another 12 years old, that could have sexually assaulted the girl.

New doctors were brought in to determine the timing of Brandi’s head trauma before she reached Watkins and Dunn and also established the injury to the girl’s vaginal tissue could not have been a “fresh wound.”

Tennessee’s head medical examiner, Dr. Adele Lewis, said about the girl’s private parts, this cellular response” probably happened “several days or even more than a week following an injury, well before Brandi was in the care of either Joyce Watkins or Charlie Dunn.”

This new evidence and more cleared the couple’s name. The report sharply criticized those who worked the case saying, “It is absurd to ignore the documented ongoing abuse and neglect of [Brandi] that took place in the two months prior to her presence in Nashville and instead to place blame on the two people who had [Brandi] in their care for less than 9 hours. Two people, who within 1.5 hours, notified [Brandi’s] grandmother of a medical problem and the need for [Brandi] to receive medical care.”

District Attorney General Glenn Funk said in court, “Fortunately, wrongful convictions are rare, but when they happen, they are real tragedies.”

“In this case, for 25 years, two innocent people languished in the penitentiary and the real perpetrator has never had to face justice,” he continued. “We cannot give back years to Ms. Watkins and Charlie Dunn but thanks to the tenacity of Ms. Watkins, the advocacy of the Tennessee Innocence Project, and the diligence of our Conviction Review Unit, and the wisdom of this Court, we can restore their dignity.”

“Joyce Watkins and Charlie Dunn are innocent and on behalf of the State of Tennessee, I move this Court to dismiss these charges,” the AG said.

On Jan. 12 Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Angelita Blackshear Dalton acceded to the state’s request to dismiss all charges against Watkins and Dunn. Dalton directly dramatically addressed Watkins in court.

“Miss Watkins — I’m going to take my mask off to tell you this. Miss Watkins, this charge against you is dismissed,” Dalton said. “And to the family of Charlie Dunn, the charge against Charlie Dunn is dismissed.”

Watkins is now free and grateful to all that have helped her clear her name.

“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,” she said to WXMI. “But I’ll get over it.”

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