Lane Shuler never met Brian Banks, but Banks’ story led him to a mission he’s as passionate about as his music, his spoken word and his career as a realtor in Maryville.
He’s trying to raise $2 million for Joyce Watkins, a Nashville woman who spent 27 years in prison for a crime she didn’t commit, more than four times the time Banks served for her own wrongful conviction. .
“Years ago I saw this special about Brian, who was a high school athlete about to go to USC (the University of Southern California), and he was definitely going to play to professional football,” Shuler recently told the Daily Times. “He was that level of athlete in high school, but he was accused of sexual assault, spent years in prison and even though he was finally able to be exonerated, when you spend years incarcerated and you fight your conviction , and you don’t get to play and you don’t get a college education, you have no chance of playing in the NFL.
Banks – whose accuser has admitted making up the story – received help from the California Innocence Project, which helped get his conviction overturned and his sex offender status cleared, allowing him to pursue a short football career in which he played in four 2013 preseason games for the Atlanta Falcons before retiring. That was enough to bring him closer to his dreams…which is more than you could say for Watkins.
It was 1987 when Watkins and her boyfriend, Charlie Dunn, rushed Watkins’ 4-year-old grandniece to a Nashville hospital, where doctors determined she had been raped and beaten. She died the next day, the couple were charged with rape and murder, and in 1988 both were convicted and sentenced to life in prison based on a medical examiner’s testimony that the injuries must have been occurred during the time the girl was in Watkins’ custody. and Dunn, who died in prison in 2015.
That same year, Watkins was released, and she approached the Tennessee Innocence Project to help clear her name.
“Joyce just showed up at the office and asked for help,” said Jason Gichner, senior legal counsel for the Nashville-based Tennessee Innocence Project, which was established in 2019 as the first-ever nonprofit at scale. of the State dedicated to representing Tennesseans who have been wrongfully convicted. “She was paroled in 2015, and for 13 years in that time she had been trying to get lawyers to help her but had no success, and nothing was really happening.
“She came up and said, ‘This is my story; can you help me ? and the person in charge at the time heard it and said, “That must be on our radar.” He’s someone we need to help.
It took Gichner joining the team in 2021 for the organization to have the manpower to seriously deal with Watkins’ case, and what they found was disturbing: information about the allegations of Prior abuse at the home where Watkins and Dunn picked her up has never been investigated. by authorities, and the evidence from Watkins’ home that the prosecution claimed she had destroyed was in fact never collected.
“We were able to get some really good experts working with us, including the chief medical examiner for the state of Tennessee, because the big issue was forensics,” Gichner said. “We were able to prove the state’s theory wrong, and once we were able to figure that out and prove it, we took it to the district attorney’s office, took all of our information to them, and when they did an independent investigation into it, they agreed.
Last January, a Nashville judge dismissed charges against Watkins and Dunn — a stipulation Watkins made when she first rang the draft’s aid, Gichner added.
“It was a requirement, clearing his name also for his family,” he said. “It’s just who Joyce is. She lives in a small town, she has a car, she has a place to live, and we would love to help her enjoy life a little more.
And that’s where Shuler comes in. Banks’ story so impressed him when he was younger, he said, that when he heard about the Tennessee Innocence Project, he offered his services at every level necessary. It turned out that the East Tennessee liaison for the nonprofit was quitting, and they asked if Shuler would be interested in returning to the role.
“I’m very busy, but I said to myself at the time if I could do it, I would,” he said. “I’m a performing artist, so my role is to bond, and the committee I’m on is the PR and promotions committee. I’m not a litigator and I’m not in the courtroom, but I can be a little megaphone here in East Tennessee.
Watkins’ story touched him as deeply as Banks’ – more so, he added, because of the length of her confinement and the price she paid for a crime she didn’t. did not commit. While on a trip to Nashville to meet songwriters and producers for his music career, he met Watkins at a Tennessee Innocence Project rally.
“I was able to meet her, and in doing so and talking to her, I realized how unfair it was,” Shuler said. “She couldn’t have children. She had to sell her house. She lost everything, and all the while she was innocent. It’s the definition of injustice, and it burns me inside. That’s when I said to myself: “We have to do something about this”. We need to step up and do what we can.
“When she went to jail, she was 41. She had never been arrested, worked at the same job for years, owned her house, owned a car, never had any problems before,” Gichner added. . “When you look at the pictures of her house and all of her stuff, you can see that she made it, but she lost everything. She spent it all to find lawyers to try to help her; she lost the job that was close to her heart; but more than that, she was quite advanced in the process of adopting a baby and even had a spare room in the house full of furniture and ready to go, because it was coming .
“So she lost the opportunity to be a mother and she can make a list of people in her family who died while she was locked up. One of the things that was particularly difficult for her after her parole was that she was on the sex offender registry, which means you have to live with severe limitations and get permission to do a lot of things, including including leaving the state. Until now, she couldn’t even leave the state to go to cemeteries to visit deceased loved ones.
To that end, Shuler has set up a GoFundMe for Watkins, and it’s a bold one: the goal is $2 million, which seems like an astronomical sum, until the cost of everything Watkins has lost is taken into account.
“It’s ambitious, but I like it. I love ambition and I think if enough people share this story, we can raise enough money,” Shuler said. “To give every human being credit, they understand how long a trial takes, and if someone is on trial that long and the prosecution has all this evidence, a reasonable person would think, ‘Surely they’re right’ And that’s reasonable. I understand that, but because we’re talking about a government entity, we know that sometimes government entities have problems.
“We hope this is an example where people can see that the government got it wrong, and that’s okay, because maybe together we can fix it. I hope people in all political parties – left, right and center – will be able to see that this is a good thing, that if something like this happens we are doing what we can to help. We cannot ring this bell, but maybe be that we can give back a little to someone who has lost a lot.
Steve Wildsmith worked as a writer, editor and freelance journalist for the Daily Times for over two decades. In addition to covering entertainment and occasional news stories, he is also the social media specialist for Maryville College. Contact him at [email protected]