‘Their Innocence Was So Crystal Clear’: Couple Cleared Of Murdering 4-Year-Old Girl In ‘87

“I'm just happy to be out of this mess, which has cost me half of my life for nothing,” Joyce Watkins says.

March 01, 2023
Joyce Watkins, pictured here, was released from prison after serving 27 years for a crime she did not commit.

Joyce Watkins and Charlie Dunn spent nearly three decades in prison for the rape and murder of her 4-year-old niece — brutal crimes officials recently admitted the couple never committed.

Photo by: Joyce Watkins

Joyce Watkins

By: Aaron Rasmussen

A Tennessee woman and her boyfriend spent nearly three decades in prison for the rape and murder of her 4-year-old niece — brutal crimes officials recently admitted the couple never committed.

“I'm just happy to be out of this mess, which has cost me half of my life for nothing,” Joyce Watkins, now 75, said of the1988 conviction that sent her and Charlie Dunn to prison in 1988. “But I'll get over it. I thank God for me being able to do this.”

On June 26, 1987, Watkins and Dunn picked up Watkins’ niece at a relative’s home in Kentucky, where the child had been living for around two months.

The following morning, Watkins said she found her niece unconscious and bruised with blood in her underwear. Watkins rushed her to a hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, and the girl died the next day. Doctors in the emergency room found the child had suffered severe vaginal injuries and head trauma.

The medical examiner determined the victim must have received her injuries in the short time she was in the care of Watkins and her boyfriend, Dunn, and testified against the couple in court.

In 1988, Watkins and Dunn were convicted and each sentenced to life behind bars for murder as well as 60 years for aggravated rape.

In 2016, after serving 27 years, Watkins was paroled and released from custody. Dunn had died in prison the previous year.

Despite gaining her freedom, Watkins, who was required to register as a sex offender, sought the help of the Tennessee Innocence Project in 2021 to clear her name.

“Joyce and Charlie were in their 40s, they had full-time jobs, they'd never been in any trouble before. Then you meet Joyce, and you're like, there's no way,” Jason Gichner, the project's senior counsel, told People in an interview, noting the case against the pair “didn't make any sense from the start.”

The child’s mother “always believed that Joyce was innocent,” as did both Watkins’ and Dunn’s families, Gichner said.

“The jury had their hands tied,” Gichner explained of the couple’s guilty verdicts. “They hear from a medical examiner who says that these injuries must have happened during this window of time when she was only with Joyce and Charlie. And that's just dead wrong.”

Watkins and Dunn reportedly had the little girl in their care for nine hours before she was transported to the hospital.

A Conviction Review Unit set up by the Nashville District Attorney General's Office worked in conjunction with the Tennessee Innocence Project to review the case and found other troubling issues.

Both the unit and the Tennessee Innocence Project learned there were allegations of abuse in Kentucky, where the child had been living with the relative. At the time, the Conviction Review Unit learned, a child welfare worker closed the case, relying on the relative’s explanation that “playground injuries” were the cause of what had appeared to be physical abuse, People reported.

Medical advances also show the timeline for when the child received her injuries was most likely inaccurate.

“This was bad science,” said the Conviction Review Unit’s director, Sunny Eaton, who added, “And it was faulty testimony by a later discredited medical examiner.”

Both the unit and the project claimed the original prosecutors on the case allegedly withheld and destroyed evidence that would have been favorable to Watkins and Dunn.

In January 2022, Judge Angelita Blackshear Dalton overturned the pair’s convictions and dismissed all charges against them.

“The inaccurate medical opinions, presented in the context of erroneous circumstantial evidence, led the jury and court to rely on inaccurate and misleading information,” the judge wrote in her ruling. “In short, the evidence in this case supports the claim that Joyce Watkins and Charlie Dunn are innocent and were convicted of crimes they did not commit.”

Eaton told People that reaching justice in cases “can’t be just about securing convictions.”

“It has to be about getting it right,” Eaton said. “We owe that to the victims, and we owe that to the people facing the system.”

“A lot of tears were shed over this case,” she continued. “It was a tragedy on all sides. To think about what Ms. Watkins and Mr. Dunn lost, once we were shown the new medical evidence and when we considered all the factors that led to their original conviction, their innocence was so crystal clear. The medical evidence here was irrefutable.”

Dunn’s daughter, Jackie Dunn, told WTVF she wished her “daddy was here to witness this day.”

She noted: “He knew he was innocent; he knew he did not commit those crimes. … So many people lost and he was innocent. He died in a place he was never supposed to be.”

The crimes against the child are now considered unsolved.

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