Tennessee inmate pleads guilty to raping, murdering prison administrator during 2019 escape

Curtis Watson issues courtroom apology to Debra Johnson’s family
Published: Jun. 14, 2021 at 4:53 AM CDT|Updated: Jun. 14, 2021 at 2:47 PM CDT
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LAUDERDALE COUNTY, Tenn. (WMC) - Curtis Watson, an inmate at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary, waved his right to a jury trial Monday and pleaded guilty to murdering the prison administrator during his 2019 escape.

Curtis Ray Watson was indicted on 15 criminal counts in the prison escape and rape and murder of Tennessee Department of Correction administrator Debra Johnson.

Watson pleaded guilty Monday to nine counts, including felony murder in perpetration of rape. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The judge gave Watson an opportunity to speak at the end of the hearing. Watson apologized to Johnson’s family.

“I just want to apologize to everybody,” he said. “The Johnson family and the state of Tennessee and all the officers at the (unintelligible) penitentiary. My apologies, please forgive me for everything I’ve ever done.”

Dr. Shernaye Johnson, Debra Johnson’s daughter, spoke about Watson’s apology after the hearing.

“I can’t say I necessarily accept his apology. That’s something that is going to take time,” she said. “I definitely hope and pray that in the future that I can definitely accept it wholeheartedly. But just right now, can I say that I accept it? I just can’t say that I can right now.”

Watson also pleaded guilty to especially aggravated burglary, aggravated rape, felony escape, theft over $10,000, burglary, theft under 1,000 and aggravated criminal trespassing.

Prosecutors say Watson escaped from the prison before raping and murdering Johnson in her home on prison grounds. He was on the run for several days before he was eventually captured.

In February 2020 prosecutors announced they would seek the death penalty if Watson was convicted. During Monday’s hearing, a prosecutor said Watson opted to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence.

District Attorney General Mark Davidson said the plea agreement was made with Johnson’s family’s cooperation.

At the time of his escape, Watson was serving a 15-year sentence for especially aggravated kidnapping for illegally confining his wife and hitting her with an aluminum baseball bat in July 2012.

The Tennessee Department of Corrections released a statement after Watson’s guilty plea, recounting the impact of Johnson’s 38-year career “and the countless lives she impacted through her leadership.”

“Debra loved being a part of the Tennessee Department of Correction but more importantly she loved the staff and cared deeply about improving the lives of incarcerated people,” Commissioner Tony Parker said. “She held the admiration and respect of her colleagues and was regarded as a knowledgeable professional who worked tirelessly to support and coach offenders in their rehabilitation. She was a devoted daughter, sister, mother, grandmother and friend. Her absence is felt each day within our agency.”

TDOC said it will ensure the court’s orders are carried out, Watson is housed according to policy and supervised appropriately.

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