Justice A. A. Birch Building

Justice A. A. Birch Building

Editor’s note: This post contains details about sexual violence.

Around 9:30 a.m. on June 27, 1987, Joyce Watkins arrived at Nashville Memorial Hospital seeking treatment for her great-niece, Brandi Jessie. The 4-year-old was unconscious. 

Examining the child, doctors determined she had severe vaginal injuries and head trauma. They transferred her to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where she was placed on life support and pronounced dead the next day. 

Watkins and her boyfriend Charlie Dunn had the girl in their care for only about nine hours when Watkins brought her to the hospital. The day before, they’d driven from Nashville to Fort Cambell to pick the girl up from a woman named Rose Williams, another of Brandi’s great-aunts, whose home she’d been staying in for two months. But Dr. Gretel Harlan of the medical examiner’s office concluded that Brandi’s injuries were sustained while she was with Watkins and Dunn. The couple was charged with first-degree murder and aggravated rape. A year later they were convicted and given life sentences. 

Dunn died in prison in 2015. He’d been granted parole and was awaiting release. Watkins was granted parole in October of that year after serving more than 27 years in prison. And now the Davidson County District Attorney’s Office says they were innocent. 

In a report filed in Davidson County Criminal Court Wednesday, the office’s Conviction Review Unit recommends that the couple’s convictions be vacated and they both be exonerated. 

"The inescapable reality is that we may never know for certain what happened to cause the death of Brandi Danielle Jessie," CRU director Sunny Eaton writes in the report’s conclusion. "However, what is clear is that Joyce Watkins and Charles Dunn neither committed an Aggravated Rape of Brandi nor did they take any actions that caused her death."

The 44-page report details a wrongful conviction resulting from an aggressive — and at times dishonest — prosecution based on circumstantial evidence, since-discredited methods by since-disgraced medical examiners and unwitting defendants who initially spoke to police without an attorney. In the end, according to the report, Joyce Watkins and Charlie Dunn were convicted of the child’s rape and murder despite being some of the only people to take her well-being seriously. 

The girl had spent the two months before her death with Williams, her great-aunt, and the report says she started exhibiting strange symptoms and behavior during that time. She was once found drinking out of a toilet bowl and another time spontaneously started vomiting at the dinner table. She had "daily episodes" of urinary incontinence and complained of her private parts hurting so badly that she didn’t want to sit down in the bathtub. In two instances, she lost consciousness. Even so, her great-aunt ultimately never sought medical attention for her.

Around the same time, the Kentucky Department of Social Services received a report alleging that Brandi was being abused. A social worker made a visit to Williams’ home but — according to the CRU report — was satisfied with what she found. Soon, Williams began calling Watkins and asking her to come get the child and bring her to Watkins’ home in Nashville. On the night of June 26, 1987, that’s what Watkins and her boyfriend, Dunn, did. One of Dunn’s sons told the CRU that Dunn invited him and his brother to come along for the ride but that they decided to stay home to go to a football game. From then on, Watkins told the CRU, she noticed Brandi’s strange behavior and physical symptoms — the child had a bruise underneath her eye and was nearly falling asleep standing up, the report says. 

Upon Watkins and Dunn’s return to Nashville, the report says, Watkins noticed blood in the girl’s underwear. She called the child’s grandmother in Georgia to tell her that Brandi needed medical attention. They told Watkins not to take the child to the hospital, the report says, but that they would drive up to get her. The following morning, when the child’s mother and grandmother hadn’t arrived, Watkins called to tell them she wasn’t waiting any longer. She took Brandi to the hospital. By the time they arrived, Brandi was bleeding more heavily and was unconscious, the report says. She was intubated immediately and died the next day. The cause of death, the report says, was determined to be trauma to the head. 

From there, according to the CRU report and a separate filing from the Tennessee Innocence Project — which brought the case to the CRU — what unfolded was a tour through the hallmarks of wrongful convictions. At first, investigators focused on Williams and the theory that the child’s injuries had occurred while she was in Kentucky. Watkins was interviewed several times by police without being informed of her rights or having an attorney present. Watkins and Dunn cooperated with the investigation, and Watkins even allowed police to come into her home to retrieve the child’s clothes and bedding. But the CRU report says that after an investigation by the Criminal Investigation Division at Fort Campbell that left much to be desired, Watkins and Dunn were charged with the crimes. 

"What is clear is that CID failed to engage in even a cursory investigation into any of the multiple other individuals who had direct access to Brandi during the time frame her injuries likely occurred," the CRU report says.

Initially, Harlan — who performed the autopsy with her then-husband Dr. Charles Harlan — declared that Brandi’s injuries had occurred within 24 to 48 hours of the child’s death. She said she could date the bruises on the girl’s body. 

"If Harlan could indeed determine the timing of a head injury solely by visual observation, she would have possessed a skill not recognized in modern medical science," the report says. "Since the time of this trial, methods of dating bruises by color and/or visual inspection have been largely discredited."

Harlan changed her opinion 20 minutes before trial, declaring that actually the injuries had occurred within 12 to 14 hours of the child’s death. And the science Harlan relied on is not the only thing that’s been discredited. Charles Harlan was forced to resign as Nashville’s medical examiner in 1994 after three women who worked under him sued him for sexual harassment. In 2005, his medical license was revoked after the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners found him guilty of 20 counts of misconduct. Gretel Harlan was also the subject of an investigation by the state health department, after which she retired her medical license in Tennessee. A tenant renting a house from the couple reportedly found a jar of body parts in their laundry room and other anatomical samples that should have been discarded. 

Bolstering the notion that the supposed forensic science used to convict Watkins and Dunn was unreliable: One of the key experts participating with the Tennessee Innocence Project and the CRU in the case today is Dr. Adele Lewis, the state’s chief medical examiner. 

The CRU report also says that the prosecutor on the case, Assistant District Attorney Richard Fisher, "consistently misrepresented evidence to the jury and to the Post-Conviction Court."

In the CRU report’s conclusion, Eaton writes that the case against Watkins and Dunn was “purely circumstantial” and that upon reinvestigation it is devastatingly thin. 

"When stripped of demonstrably unreliable testimony, facts misrepresented to the jury and Post-Conviction Court and faulty medical conclusions, even the minute circumstantial case against Ms. Watkins and Mr. Dunn is devoid," she writes.

Eaton writes that, aside from the fact that Dunn was a male in Brandi’s presence shortly before her death, "There is utterly no evidence suggesting Mr. Dunn’s guilt."

Dunn did not live to see his name cleared. But Watkins has been out on parole since 2015. The report says she has been fully compliant and has passed numerous polygraph tests since her release from prison. Her story hasn’t changed. 

All that’s left is what the CRU and the Tennessee Innocence Project have asked a court to do today: vacate their convictions and affirm what Watkins and Dunn always maintained — their innocence. 


Like what you read?

Click here to make a contribution to the Scene and support local journalism!