RIPLEY, Tenn. – A convicted felon accused of raping and killing a Tennessee corrections administrator and then escaping from prison on a farm tractor was sentenced to life without parole Monday after striking a deal with prosecutors.
Curtis Ray Watson told a judge that he agreed to plead no contest to first-degree murder in the perpetration of a rape in the death of Tennessee Department of Correction administrator Debra Johnson, 64. He also pleaded no contest to aggravated rape, and guilty to seven additional charges, including aggravated burglary and escape.
Prosecutors had initially filed a notice to seek the death penalty should Watson be convicted at trial in connection with the Aug. 7, 2019 attack. Premeditated first-degree murder was one of the charges dropped under the plea deal. He is currently being held at a maximum security prison in the Nashville area.
Lauderdale County Judge Joe Walker gave Watson, 46, a life sentence for the murder charge and an additional 25 years for the rape charge. Sentences for the other charges were to run concurrently with the life term.
Johnson had been a state employee for 38 years and oversaw wardens at several prisons. Watson apologized to Johnson family members in the courtroom and asked for forgiveness “for everything I’ve ever done.”
Shernaye Johnson, Debra Johnson’s daughter, said that while she was glad Watson showed some accountability for her mother’s killing, she was not ready to accept his apology.
“That’s something that is going to take time,” she told reporters outside the courthouse.
Watson had been housed in the minimum security annex at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary near Henning, about 60 miles (96 kilometers) north of Memphis. He was serving a 15-year sentence for illegally confining his wife and hitting her with an aluminum baseball bat in July 2012, court documents show. His sentence began in 2013 and was set to expire in 2025. He also had been previously convicted of aggravated child abuse.
The prisoner had access to a tractor and a golf cart as a “trusty” — an inmate granted special privileges as a trustworthy person — and was on regular lawn care duties when he sexually assaulted and killed Johnson at her home on the prison grounds, authorities said.
After the attack, Watson escaped on a tractor, which he left in a cotton field about 2 miles (3 kilometers) from the prison, authorities said. He was found four days later after an intense manhunt.
During his four days on the run in rural West Tennessee, Watson stole items from two homes, including camouflage clothing, binoculars, a compass, two knives, a saw and food, the indictment said. He was captured seven hours after homeowners recognized him on their outdoor surveillance camera.
Watson first drove away from the prison on the tractor sometime between 9 and 10 a.m. He was declared missing at 11 a.m. after failing to show up for a routine check-in.
Phone records show Johnson was talking on the phone at 8:10 a.m., according to an affidavit. When she didn’t show up for work, co-workers went to her home, where they discovered her body about 11:30 a.m.
A prison nurse testified she found a cellphone charging cord wrapped around Johnson’s neck, and a medical examiner ruled Johnson had been strangled. DNA evidence collected from the crime scene matched Watson, prosecutor Julie Pillow said.
Johnson's killing led to questions about security at the prison. During a December 2019 appearance before members of the Tennessee Legislature's Joint Corrections Subcommittee in Nashville, Tennessee Department of Correction Commissioner Tony Parker said that it was “worth looking at” adding video surveillance cameras at residences located at the prison.
Parker became emotional as he spoke about Johnson during the meeting with lawmakers. He called her an extraordinary woman “who treated everyone she encountered with dignity and respect.”
Shernaye Johnson said her mother believed prison inmates could change their lives and inmates have told her about her mother's positive influence on them.
“She didn’t think that because you made a bad decision, then that defines your entire life,” she said.