After 27 years in prison, Joyce Watkins appeared in court one final time Wednesday morning to have her charges officially dropped.
Watkins and her boyfriend, Charlie Dunn, were convicted in 1988 of the rape and murder of 4-year-old Brandy Brooks.
Court filings from the Tennessee Innocence Project and the district attorney’s Conviction Review Unit showed that Watkins and Dunn, who died in prison in 2015, were convicted based in part on faulty medical expertise.
Watkins was released in 2015, but she remained under supervision on the sex offender registry.
“I would just like to thank everyone that helped me prove my innocence,” Watkins said after the proceeding. “It’s been a long struggle.”
Watkins said “this mess” cost her half of her life.
Jason Gichner with TIP said Watkins has continued to live her life. She has lived a quiet life with her friends and family since her release, he said.
“I wouldn’t expect anything else,” he said.
Lois Lockhart, Brandy Brooks’ mother, was present in court.
Lockhart said Watkins has suffered.
“I stand here today, I am very, very, very hurt. I just feel so bad for her,” Lockhart said with obvious emotion.
Jackie Dunn, daughter of Charlie Dunn, said her family knew that he could have never committed those crimes.
“So many important times were lost. So many people he loved passed away during his time in prison,” Jackie Dunn said.
Charlie Dunn’s mother, two brothers, sister and son all died while he was imprisoned.
“He was innocent. He died in a place where he was never supposed to be,” Jackie Dunn said.
Gichner said the biggest reason TIP was able to clear Watkins’ name was because they had an open and honest working relationship with the DA’s office.
“These cases where people are wrongfully convicted don’t need to be and shouldn’t be adversarial,” he said.
“We cannot give back the years to Joyce Watkins and Charlie Dunn, but thanks to the tenacity of Miss 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,” District Attorney Glenn Funk said in court Wednesday.
Tennessee law says wrongfully imprisoned individuals granted exoneration by the governor can submit a claim for compensation to the Tennessee Board of Claims. Watkins and Dunn have not yet been exonerated by the governor.
Gichner said next steps haven’t been decided, and they wanted to get through Wednesday first.
“They always knew they were innocent. Their families always knew they were innocent. And today everybody knows they’re innocent,” Gichner said.