Axios Nashville

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November 12, 2021

Ladies and gentlemen ... the weekend.

⛅️ Today's weather: 63 with intermittent sun and clouds.

Today's newsletter is 930 words — a 3.5-minute read.

1 big thing: 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.

2. Luke Combs arrives

Singer-songwriter Luke Combs
Luke Combs performs at the CMA Awards on Wednesday. Photo: Terry Wyatt/Getty Images

Luke Combs put an exclamation point on his ascent from scrappy indie upstart to country music's upper echelon Wednesday after winning the CMA's treasured entertainer of the year award.

Why it matters: The award is reserved for artists who move the needle commercially and earn admiration within the insular country music industry.

  • Combs' meteoric rise and his partnership with River House Artists' Lynn Oliver-Cline should go down in Music Row lore. Oliver-Cline went all Jerry Maguire by quitting her job, starting her own record label, and signing Combs as her first artist.

Driving the news: Brothers Osborne nabbed the best country duo trophy in the same year that co-frontman TJ Osborne came out as gay, while Jimmie Allen's win for best new artist reflected the progress that artists of color have earned in recent years.

  • Two of the show's highlights were Mickey Guyton's performance with Brittney Spencer and Madeline Edwards of "I Love My Hair," and Jennifer Hudson's collaboration with Chris Stapleton to perform a pair of Aretha Franklin songs.
  • "We are becoming more inclusive and representative of our fanbase, which allows us to share even more diverse stories," Country Music Association CEO Sarah Trahern tells Axios. "I am so proud that our show can give artists a platform to share these stories and perform what is authentic and meaningful to them."

Quick take: Other notable CMA Awards winners were Carly Pearce's somewhat surprising victory for female vocalist and Old Dominion's fourth win in a row for vocal group of the year.

3. Emissions tests under fire

Traffic o Broadway in downtown Nashville.
Photo: John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

At least 23 council members have signed onto a resolution that would end emissions testing for drivers in Davidson County.

  • Councilmember Kevin Rhoten, the lead sponsor, says it was driven by new automotive technology that reduced harmful vehicle emissions.

Why it matters: Tennessee has for years moved to eliminate emissions testing. Testing in five other counties will end in January, leaving Nashville as the only holdout.

Driving the news: Before petitioning to roll back emissions testing in other counties, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation compiled a report showing testing was no longer needed to meet air quality standards.

What he's saying: "Cars have been required to reduce emissions for going on 40 years now," Rhoten tells Axios. "People don’t understand why they have to wait an hour, two hours in line to get their cars tested when they have a relatively new car."

Yes, but: In a statement to WSMV, the Metro Public Health Department sounded a note of caution about the "risk" of ending testing, saying vehicles "remain the largest source of air pollution in Davidson County."

What's next: Rhoten's resolution is on the agenda for next week's council meeting, although he says he might delay a vote to give other members time to review.

4. The Setlist

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Mayor John Cooper's administration is continuing tours of homeless encampments despite sharp pushback from critics. (The Tennessean)

Gov. Bill Lee will sign new legislation limiting COVID-19 safety measures, although he told reporters he will ask lawmakers to consider some changes in 2022. (Tennessee Lookout)

The Titans are looking to score their sixth straight win this weekend. (Associated Press)

5. Experience the Sistine Chapel in Nashville

Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel: the Exhibition
Photo courtesy of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition

A photographic duplication of Michelangelo's paintings at the Sistine Chapel is now on display at the Opry Mills Mall.

  • The exhibit features photos in the actual size of Michelangelo's iconic work.

Tickets are available until Jan. 16.

Our picks:

👻 Nate is waiting for [name redacted] to text him back. Email [email protected] with your guess for which public figure is ghosting Nate. Correct answers could win some Axios swag.

❤️ Adam is heading deep into the Great Smoky Mountains with his boyfriend to listen to and cry about "Red (Taylor's Version)."

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