NASHVILLE, Tenn. (February 7, 2023) – The Tennessee Titans have chosen Joyce Watkins as their NFL Inspire Change Changemaker Award winner for the 2022-23 football season. In January 2022, after tenacious work by the Tennessee Innocence Project, 74-year-old Watkins was exonerated after spending almost three decades in prison for a crime she did not commit. Now, Watkins serves as a spokesperson and activist, bringing awareness to wrongful convictions.
For this football season, the NFL established the new Inspire Change Changemaker Award. Each NFL team selected a “changemaker” who is making a difference in their community through social justice work, either as an individual or along with a non-profit organization. As part of this award, the Tennessee Titans will donate $10,000 to the Tennessee Innocence Project. The Titans will also give Watkins an all-expenses-paid trip for two to the Super Bowl this weekend.
Watkins was also named the Wesley Mortgage Community Hero in December by the Tennessee Titans. She received 14 tickets to the Christmas Eve Titans game in Nashville. They shared her story on the big screen to educate the crowd and help others who are still in prison because of wrongful convictions.
“Joyce’s heartbreaking story of strength and perseverance is something everyone needs to hear,” said Jessica Van Dyke, Executive Director and Lead Counsel for the Tennessee Innocence Project. “There is no better gift in life than helping someone get their life back. We are so pleased that the Tennessee Titans chose to honor Joyce, and their monetary gift will help us free other innocent men and women currently in prison.”
Watkins is the first Black woman to ever be exonerated in the state and only the third woman in Tennessee history. Senior Legal Counsel Jason Gichner led the Tennessee Innocence Project team, which collaborated with the Davidson County District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit, to pursue justice in this case.
Watkins and her boyfriend, Charlie Dunn, were wrongfully convicted of aggravated rape and felony murder in the 1987 death of her 4-year-old great niece. An investigation by the Tennessee Innocence Project and a report on the case from the District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit brought the case back to court. Last January, both Watkins and Dunn were exonerated, cleared of all charges, and declared innocent. Watkins spent 27 years in prison and was released on probation in October 2015. Dunn died of cancer in prison after learning he was going to be released on parole. He never saw his name cleared.
Watkins said: “I always knew that one day I would get out. I would pray and ask God to put somebody in my life to help me prove my innocence, and it, too, came to pass.” She credits the Tennessee Innocence Project with her exoneration, especially Gichner, her lead legal counsel.
Titan videos of Ms. Watkins.