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Joyce Watkins

Other Tennessee Exonerations
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At 9:30 a.m. on June 27, 1987, 39-year-old Joyce Watkins, accompanied by her 43-year-old boyfriend, Charlie Dunn, brought Watkins’s 4-year-old grandniece, B.B., to the Nashville Memorial Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. The girl was unconscious.

Physicians determined the girl had a severe vaginal injury and head trauma. She was transferred to Vanderbilt University Hospital and placed on life support. The following day, Sunday, June 28, B.B. was pronounced dead.

After a medical examiner concluded that the girl’s injuries occurred during the time she was in the care of Watkins and Dunn, both were charged with rape and murder. On August 5, 1988, a jury convicted them of both charges, and they were sentenced to life in prison.

On January 12, 2022, more than 33 years later, the convictions were dismissed in Davidson County District Court when evidence gathered by the Tennessee Innocence Project and the Davidson District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit showed they were convicted on medical testimony that was wrong and the prosecution had failed to disclose evidence that was favorable to the defense.

The seeds for the tragedy were planted on May 3, 1987 at a family gathering at the Fort Campbell, Kentucky military base at the home of Rose Williams, who, like Watkins, was B.B.’s great-aunt. Family members decided to let B.B. stay with Williams for two more weeks after which she would go back to her mother’s home on the U.S. Army base at Fort Benning, Georgia.

The two weeks turned into two months. About a week before B.B.’s death, Williams began calling Watkins, asking her to take B.B. to Watkins’s home in Nashville. Watkins would later say that each day Williams became more adamant until the evening of Friday, June 26, 1987. Watkins and Dunn had worked overnight shifts, getting off work at 11 a.m. that morning and still had not slept. They were planning a trip to Maryland and St. Louis the following day, and Dunn had spent most of the day packing.

Still, they agreed to make the nearly 60-mile drive to Fort Campbell to pick up B.B. Dunn asked his two sons to ride along, but they stayed behind to attend a high school football game. Dunn and Watkins arrived around 11:30 p.m.

Watkins wanted to come in and visit, but Williams had a bag packed for B.B. and rushed them to leave. Upon their arrival back in Nashville, Watkins noticed blood in B.B.’s underwear. She called B.B.’s mother in Georgia and said B.B. needed medical attention. B.B.’s mother and grandmother, Elizabeth Underwood (who was Watkins’s sister), said not to take B.B. to the hospital and said they would drive up from Fort Benning to get her.

The following morning, when B.B.’s mother and grandmother had not arrived, Watkins called them just before 9 a.m. and explained that she was not going to wait any longer and was taking B.B. to the hospital. Julia Henry, another of Watkins’s sisters who lived in Nashville, came by the house and examined B.B., who was sleeping. Henry woke B.B. and spoke to her. She noticed a bruise under one of B.B.’s eyes, and B.B.’s fingers were swollen. B.B. had a scrape down one leg, marks on her abdomen and chest, and her face was swollen. There was a pink discharge in her genital area.

Watkins, Dunn, and B.B. arrived at the hospital at 9:39 a.m. By then, B.B., who had been talking just minutes earlier, had become unconscious and was bleeding more heavily from her vagina. Treating physicians concluded she had been sexually assaulted. A rape kit was taken, but was negative for semen. Her injuries included head trauma.

Six hours later, at 3:42 p.m., B.B. was transferred to Vanderbilt University Medical Center and placed on life support. Medical records indicated she had already been declared brain dead. Police were called.

By the time Metropolitan Nashville police detective Jerry Pinkelton arrived at Vanderbilt, Underwood and B.B.’s mother had arrived from Fort Benning. Pinkelton said he heard Underwood say, “Rose knows what happened and I’m going to get to the bottom of this.”

Pinkelton said he understood Underwood to be accusing her sister, Rose Williams, of being responsible. When Underwood testified at the trial, she was asked if she suspected Williams was responsible.

“Yes,” Underwood said. “When that happened, I said, yes, if she did, I would kill her. Yes.”

Pinkelton asked B.B.’s mother if she thought Williams had harmed B.B. “She must have, yes, I think she did it,” B.B.’s mother replied.

As a result, detectives contacted the Fort Campbell Criminal Investigation Division to investigate Williams.

The investigation in Nashville focused on Watkins and Dunn after Dr. Gretel Harlan, the assistant Davidson County Medical Examiner, reported that she had conducted an autopsy that showed imprints of nine blows from human knuckles on B.B.’s head. The force of the blows caused the veins and arteries on both sides of her brain to tear. In addition, Dr. Harlan said there were multiple tears to B.B.’s hymen and lacerations around her vagina stretching back toward her anus. Dr. Harlan placed the time of the injuries within 24 to 48 hours of the pronouncement of death. This time frame stretched back to when B.B. was still with Rose Williams in Fort Campbell.

Watkins was interviewed at the hospital by police officers, including Detective David Bradford, Lieutenant Arlene Moore, and Laura Treese, a social worker with the Nashville Department of Human Services. In all, she was interviewed four times, the final time occurring on Monday, June 29. Officers noticed inconsistencies in her statements such as where she slept, when they got home with B.B., the time she noticed blood in B.B.’s underwear, and when she called Underwood and B.B.’s mother.

Dunn was interviewed. While police thought some of his statements didn’t match up with what Watkins was saying, neither he nor Watkins were considered suspects.

Dunn told the detectives: “I’m going to tell you something, you all can question Joyce all you want and you can question me. You ain't going to find no wrong in either one of us, because we are both good people."

Watkins allowed police to come into her home. She retrieved B.B.’s clothing and bedding. Dunn gave a hair sample that was compared to hairs found in the bedding and clothing. He was excluded as the source of hair recovered.

Records showed that on June 9, 1987, more than two weeks before Watkins and Dunn picked up B.B., the Kentucky Department of Social Services (DSS), Family Services Division, visited Rose Williams after receiving a complaint that B.B. had welts on her back and a swollen hand. Williams told the social worker that B.B. had suffered playground injuries, though she admitted she spanked B.B. for wetting her pants. Williams also falsely said that B.B. had already returned to Fort Benning to her mother. A week later, Williams called DSS and said B.B. had been taken to a doctor who said she was fine. That was false as well—there was no doctor visit. The child abuse investigation was closed.

In Fort Campbell, investigators, working with the U.S. Marine Criminal Investigation Division (MCID), were attempting to determine if any men had contact with B.B., in particular, Rose Williams’s 19-year-old son, M.G., who was in a Marine reserve unit.

On July 6, 1987, Detective Pinkelton and another detective met with a Fort Campbell criminal investigator to discuss information they had received that M.G. had beaten and raped B.B. and that Williams was attempting to hide M.G. from police. They interviewed Williams, and she denied the allegations and said that her son had left on May 27 for his Marine reserve unit in Columbus, Georgia.

Records had been found showing that on June 25—the day before Williams began clamoring for B.B. to get picked up—a plane ticket for M.G. was booked to fly on June 26 from Atlanta to Washington, D.C. Records showed that M.G. arrived in Quantico, Virginia on June 30.

Ultimately, the Fort Campbell criminal investigation division determined that because Williams’s husband was in New York and M.G. was in Virginia, there were no males in the Williams house and therefore whatever had happened to B.B. happened in Nashville after Watkins and Dunn picked her up.

On Friday, July 24, 1987, Watkins and Dunn were arrested. They were charged with first-degree murder and aggravated rape.

On August 1, 1988, they went to trial in Davidson County Criminal Court. Rose Williams testified that B.B. had suffered a number of injuries during the time she stayed with her. She fell off monkey bars, slipped on some water and fell in the street, and had torn skin on her ankle caused by the rubbing of her sandal strap. She said that B.B. had a rash from constantly wetting her pants and when B.B. complained of pain, Williams said she told the girl to put Vaseline on herself. Williams said B.B. sometimes defecated in her pants as well.

Williams also described unusual behavior: she drank out of the toilet bowl and sometimes vomited at the dinner table without warning. B.B. fell asleep constantly during the day, even while standing up. On one occasion, she stopped breathing when a glob of peanut butter got stuck in her mouth. An ambulance was called. When the glob was extricated, B.B. began breathing again, so the ambulance was canceled.

Williams initially denied calling Watkins the week of June 26 or requesting Watkins come get B.B. Williams asserted that Watkins had already planned to come get her. However, upon cross-examination, she was confronted with phone records proving four calls were made from her number to Watkins on Friday, June 26.

Williams claimed that B.B. was not exhibiting any unusual pain or injuries when Watkins and Dunn picked the girl up.

Pinkelton, who was no longer a police officer, testified that he recalled Watkins making inconsistent statements during her interviews regarding the timing of events and where she was in the home at certain times. He conceded that he had not recorded the interviews and did not write up his report until June 1988—a year later—because the prosecution requested a written report.

Detective Bradford testified that Watkins had told police on Saturday morning, before going to the hospital, she washed the sheets from the bed in which B.B. slept. The prosecutor, Richard Fisher, contended that this was evidence that Watkins was attempting to cover up a crime. Bradford relied upon a report written by Lt. Moore, who, like Pinkelton, also did not write up her report of interview with Watkins for more than a year.

Dr. Warren Hill testified that he examined the girl in the emergency room. He testified that the vaginal injury was only hours old and that no blanching existed to indicate that the wound was any older.

The prosecution’s case was primarily based on the testimony of Dr. Harlan. Twenty minutes before she took the witness stand, she revised the time frame for the injuries inflicted on B.B. from 24 to 48 hours to 12 to 14 hours prior to when B.B. was assessed as being brain dead.

Dr. Harlan said that while reviewing medical notes in B.B.’s charts, she discovered that B.B. had been pronounced brain dead on June 27. Dr. Harlan said her initial window was based on the pronouncement of death, which came 16 hours later on June 28—this new window now covered only time when B.B. was with Watkins and Dunn.

Dr. Harlan said this was significant because she did not find any “histiocytic response” in the subdural hemorrhage clotting. Histiocytes are normal immune cells found in many parts of the body. Such a response occurs, she said, within 12 to 14 hours of trauma to the head. She explained that dating back from the pronouncement of death meant it occurred in the hospital. Since that was not the case, she dated it from the time B.B. was determined to be brain dead.

Dr. Harlan also testified that her visual examination of bruises on B.B.’s head showed that those injuries were inflicted during the time she was with Watkins and Dunn. She said the vaginal injury occurred during that time period as well.

Dr. Harlan said there were scratches on B.B.’s back, but those were healing injuries and were minor.

During questioning by Assistant District Attorney General Richard Fisher, Dr. Harlan said that although B.B. suffered some tears near her anus, she was not raped anally.

On August 5, 1988, the jury convicted Watkins and Dunn of first-degree murder and aggravated rape. They were sentenced to life in prison.

The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the convictions in April 1990. In 1993, Dunn and Watkins filed a petition for post-conviction relief claiming their trial defense lawyers provided an inadequate legal defense by failing to call an expert witness to rebut Dr. Harlan.

During a hearing in 1994, Dr. Kris Sperry, Deputy Medical Examiner for Fulton County, Georgia, testified that the timing of B.B.’s head injuries “easily could be quite readily within 24 to 48 hours prior to the time of death," rather than the 12 to 14 opined by Dr. Harlan. Dr. Sperry also said that Dr. Harlan’s reliance on the absence of histiocytes was erroneous. Dr. Sperry said that histiocytes do not migrate into the head.

“This pattern and the way that these injuries heal has been described for well over 50 years…and there is no element of this that has…histiocytes as part of it,” Sperry testified. He concluded that using “the absence of histiocytes in this area as an indicator of how old or new the hemorrhage was erroneous because there is no such thing.”

Dr. Harlan admitted that her use of the term histiocytic response was incorrect. She said she meant to use the term fibroblasts. She stood by her analysis of the timing of the injuries even though she admitted that fibroblastic activity starts at 36 hours following an activity and that fibroblasts appear after four to five days.

Dr. Warren Hill, the initial treating physician in the emergency room, also testified at the hearing. He said that the vaginal injuries were fresh. He admitted that he was not an expert in pathology and that his estimate was based upon a visual examination.

The petition for relief was denied.

In 2015, Dunn and Watkins were granted parole. Tragically, Dunn died on January 12, 2015, before he could be released. Watkins was released on parole on October 15, 2015. She was required to register a sex offender.

The Tennessee Innocence Project was launched in February 2019. In 2020, Watkins came to the project and asked that the case be reviewed. Intake fellow Thomas Swafford interviewed Watkins and recommended that the case be accepted.

The project’s executive director Jessica Van Dyke and Senior Legal Counsel Jason Gichner then agreed to investigate the case. Subsequently, they brought the case to the Davidson County District Attorney General’s Conviction Review Unit (CRU).

The CRU, headed by Sunny Eaton, began investigating. They found a report made by Laura Treese, from the Nashville Department of Human Services. The report indicated that the sheets that B.B. slept on were in a dirty laundry hamper when she visited Watkins's home on Sunday June 28. Treese had testified for the prosecution, but her notes were not mentioned and her report was not disclosed to the defense.

The CRU also found police reports and other documents that were missing from the prosecution file and which apparently were undisclosed to the defense at any prior time—all of which had information favorable to the defense.

The CRU also interviewed numerous individuals, including Dunn’s former wife and their children, who provided valuable information. The recordings of these interviews were turned over to Van Dyke and Gichner. Based on the re-investigation, the CRU decided not only to seek to vacate Watkins’s convictions, but also to posthumously vacate Dunn’s convictions.

On November 10, 2021, Gichner and Van Dyke filed a motion to reopen the petition for post-conviction relief. At the same time, Eaton and assistant district attorney Anna Benson Hamilton, filed a notice of intent to vacate the convictions and dismiss the case. Their filings similarly said that medical evidence showed that Dunn and Watkins were innocent.

The two court filings detailed extensively how flawed and wrong Dr. Harlan’s testimony was. Her reference to histiocytes was incorrect, and her claim to be able to identify the timing of an injury by examining bruises had no basis in science.

Dr. Adele Lewis, Chief Medical Examiner for the State of Tennessee, and Dr. Shilpa Reddy, a Pediatric Neurologist at Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital, both provided evidence that Dr. Harlan’s conclusions were erroneous. Dr. Lewis said that her review of microscopic results from the autopsy indicated the presence of macrophages, white cells that are present at infection sites.

“In a critically ill child, this cellular response could be expected to be delayed to several days or even more than a week following an injury, well before [B.B.] was in the care of either Joyce Watkins or Charlie Dunn,” Lewis declared.

Dr. Reddy said it was not possible to accurately date the head trauma. However, she said the window for when the head injury occurred was significantly larger than what Dr. Harlan opined. Dr. Reddy estimated that when the head injury occurred would certainly extend to 48 hours prior to presentation at the hospital. That meant the injuries occurred in Kentucky, not Nashville.

According to Dr. Reddy, the swelling in the brain which caused the pressure, and eventually B.B.’s death, could have developed up to 72 hours after she sustained the head injury.

Eaton and Hamilton’s filing said, “The CRU has conducted an extensive investigation into the cases against Joyce Watkins and Charlie Dunn…This Office knows of clear and convincing evidence establishing Ms. Watkins and Mr. Dunn were convicted of crimes they did not commit.”

The CRU report noted, “As Dr. Sperry noted in his post-conviction testimony, there is no such entity accepted by the forensic pathology community as a ‘histiocytic response’ within the dura. Even if such an entity existed, asserting its appearance or presence within such a narrow time frame, especially given the impaired blood flow to and from the intracranial structures as demonstrated in this case, is fraught with uncertainty.”

The CRU report also said that the credibility of both Dr. Gretel Harlan and her husband, Dr. Charles Harlan, was in question.

“Despite Gretel Harlan's chief assignment to the case and it being her who testified in front of the jury, the autopsy report indicates Charles Harlan was present and he himself conducted the autopsy. There are numerous references throughout Gretel Harlan's testimony referring to what ‘he’ did or what ‘we’ did in performing the autopsy. Clearly the two doctors Harlan collaborated in the autopsy and assessment of [B.B.’s] injuries,” the report said.

The report noted that since the convictions, Drs. Charles and Gretel Harlan have been the subject of “intense investigative scrutiny and disciplinary hearings that yielded truly bizarre and unsettling findings.”

In May 2005, following two years of hearings, Tennessee permanently revoked Charles Harlan's medical license, citing 20 counts of misconduct while serving as medical examiner.

“The facts of these transgressions border on ghoulish: Charles Harlan once replied to a bank's request for proof of a client 's death that ‘M.L. is dead. She is green and has maggots crawling on her.’ In another case, a tenant renting a house from the Harlans discovered body parts in a jar and tissue samples in a chocolate box. Gretel, for her part, once explained while testifying that the tissue samples belonged to her two pet dogs upon whom she had performed an autopsy,” the CRU said.

In 1993, Davidson County Medical Examiner Dr. Julia Goodin prohibited the Harlans from conducting private autopsies on the side, which had caused a backlog of county autopsy cases. “Dr. Harlan violated this policy and performed private autopsies without permission, for which he was suspended without pay,” the CRU report said.

In 1995, Dr. Charles Harlan was barred from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation crime laboratory, and his contract as state medical examiner was terminated, although he retained private contracts with various Tennessee counties. “Dr. Harlan falsified an autopsy report in the 2001 case of James Suttle, accused of first-degree murder. Suttle claimed his cousin, Stevie Hobbs, had suffered a seizure and fallen through a glass table, but Dr. Harlan insisted that Hobbs had been stabbed to death, opining that the stab wounds had occurred shortly before death,” the CRU report said. Suttle was acquitted after a defense forensic expert demonstrated the instrument would have had to tum along a right angle inside Hobbs's body, a medical impossibility.

The CRU report said the Suttle case sparked a review of Dr. Charles Harlan's cases that revealed serious misconduct.

--Dr. Harlan had falsely identified a body as belonging to an escaped convict, Bruce Allen Littleton, who was discovered alive two years later in connection with another crime.

--Dr. Harlan also determined that two children had died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome when, in fact, a parent had murdered them.

--Dr. Harlan listed a 10-year-old's cause of death as natural when the child weighed only 18 pounds, a clear case of neglect.

--Dr. Harlan also allowed his dog into the autopsy room on one occasion; the dog consumed some of the remains of a murder victim.

-- Harlan's testimony in the death penalty cases of James Dellinger and Gary Sutton “proved definitive when he testified that rigor mortis could persist 72 hours after death, a crucial fact that, if false, would have cleared the defendants. The testimony established their guilt and placed them on Death Row, but subsequent medical experts have weighed in and established that Dr. Harlan's testimony regarding rigor mortis was entirely unfounded and impossible. Dellinger and Sutton's appeals are ongoing.”

The CRU report said that an “Ohio State Medical Board investigation found that anatomical samples from the Davidson County Medical Examiner's Office were discovered inside the Harlans' home. The renters found autopsy files containing graphic crime scene photos, as well as blood smears from Nashville Memorial Hospital that should have been discarded. The Tennessee Department of Health initiated formal proceedings against Dr. Gretel Harlan for these infractions, offering a settlement agreement documenting 48 violations and proposing a fine of $2,400 plus costs. Following this reprimand, Dr. Gretel Harlan retired her Tennessee license in 2005 and moved to Ohio, whose medical board initiated a parallel investigation. The Board described the Tennessee reprimand as ‘very unusual’ and noted that while Dr. Charles Harlan bore some responsibility for the material found in the home, Dr. Gretel Harlan was also culpable.”

The CRU report also was highly critical of the trial prosecutor, Richard Fisher, for misrepresenting facts and arguing facts not in evidence. He told the jury that B.B. had been anally raped, and he told the jury that the scratches on B.B. were inflicted by Dunn when he raped her—neither of which was true.

Fisher told the jury that Watkins had washed the sheets to hide the crime. The CRU report said, “There is nothing within the record or testimony to support this assertion and all evidence indicates otherwise.”

Fisher also told the jury, “The Kentucky authorities could find no fault and an assault upon that child before she left the State of Kentucky, which is consistent with the medical professionals and all other evidence you have here.”

The CRU report said, however, “This is flatly inaccurate. No authority in Kentucky investigated these allegations to the point that they could make that finding.”

The CRU report said Fisher made statements to the jury “that by any measure were inappropriate because they were grossly prejudicial and without probative value.”

In particular, the report quoted Fisher as saying, “I knew before you ever sat there that I was going to put you through your own personal torture, because you had no idea when you got that notice, you were going to be a juror and when you walked into this courtroom, that you were going to be exposed to what humanity in Nashville, Tennessee, may be all about in some pockets of town or to some evil deviants who have no control.”

The report said that neither Watkins nor Dunn had any criminal record. “They worked full-time jobs and were close to their family and friends,” the report said. “They lived in a nice home in a nice neighborhood made up primarily of working and professional-class African-Americans. Ms. Watkins was in the middle of applying to adopt a child of her own. Mr. Dunn had children he was close to and who he regularly spent time with.”

The report declared, “The impact of these misrepresentations of fact and inflammatory statements made by the prosecuting attorney to the jury, just before they attempted meaningful deliberation, cannot be overstated. The prosecuting attorney breached his ethical responsibility to argue facts consistent with the proof. “

On January 6, 2022, Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Angelita Blackshear Dalton vacated the convictions and ordered a new trial.

“The evidence presented at trial and post-conviction in this case was misleading, false, and uncorrected as to material issues,” the judge wrote.

The judge noted that the Department of Human Services report, which was not disclosed to the defense at trial, directly contradicted the prosecution’s claim that Watkins had washed the sheets before police could take them as evidence. “The evidence presented at trial in 1988, and at the post-conviction hearing in 1994, consisted of inaccurate medical testimony supported by misstated circumstantial evidence,” the judge ruled.

On January 12, 2022, Watkins, as well as relatives of Dunn, were in court when the charges were dismissed. By that time, Watkins also had been removed from the sex offender registry.

“Miss Watkins,” said Judge Blackshear Dalton, “I am going to take my mask off to tell you this. Miss Watkins, the charge against you is dismissed. And to the family of Charlie Dunn, the charge against Charlie Dunn is dismissed.”

Afterward, Watkins, 74, was understated.

“It’s been a long struggle,” she said.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 1/24/2022
Last Updated: 1/24/2022
State:Tennessee
County:Davidson
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Child Sex Abuse
Reported Crime Date:1987
Convicted:1988
Exonerated:2022
Sentence:Life
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Female
Age at the date of reported crime:39
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No