Nov 12, 2021 - News

Nashville DA disavows murder case

Illustration of a pattern of gavels.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

A couple convicted in the 1987 rape and murder of a 4-year-old girl is innocent and should be exonerated, the Nashville district attorney's office said this week.

  • The Tennessee Innocence Project referred the case to the DA's conviction review unit, which confirmed several flaws in the medical examiner's testimony and identified "flatly incorrect" statements made by the trial prosecutor.

Why it matters: The conviction review unit, launched by DA Glenn Funk in 2017, has identified multiple high-level mistakes made in past prosecutions.

  • The Tennessee Innocence Project and other attorneys have worked to clear those defendants in the court system.

The details: Joyce Watkins and her boyfriend Charlie Dunn were convicted based on "purely circumstantial" evidence, the report noted.

  • The couple took care of the 4-year-old for only a few hours before taking her to a hospital. Doctors found evidence of head trauma and sexual assault, and she died soon afterward.
  • New analysis from experts including the state's chief medical examiner suggests the deadly abuse took place before Watkins and Dunn were taking care of the girl. That contradicts key testimony from the trial.
  • Watkins was released on parole in 2015 and remains on the state's sex offender registry. Dunn died in prison.

What they're saying: "The tragedies of this case are myriad," the conviction review unit wrote.

  • The report pointed to evidence the young girl had suffered abuse and neglect well before she was with Watkins and Dunn. An allegation of physical abuse was filed with Kentucky's Department of Social Services in the weeks before her death when the child was staying with someone else.
  • While other adults disregarded that evidence, Watkins was "the only person who attempted to help."
  • "We may never know for certain what happened to cause (the child's death)," the report noted. "However, what is clear is that Joyce Watkins and Charles Dunn neither committed the aggravated rape … nor did they take any actions that caused her death."

The latest: In tandem with the prosecutors' report, the Tennessee Innocence Project on Wednesday asked the court to vacate the convictions and dismiss the case.


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