Prison inmate enters plea deal in brutal murder of Tennessee prison administrator

Updated: Jun. 14, 2021 at 10:58 PM CDT
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LAUDERDALE COUNTY, Tenn. (WMC) - The rape and murder case against Curtis Ray Watson ended in a courtroom in Lauderdale County.

Watson pleaded guilty in a plea deal that took the death penalty off the table. The family of Debra Johnson sat in the courtroom and listened as Watson apologized.

“I just want to apologize to everybody, the Johnson family, the state of Tennessee and officers at the West Penitentiary. My apologies. Please forgive me for everything I have ever done,” said Watson.

Johnson’s family sat in the courtroom with heavy security and listened to the apology from the man who raped and murdered their loved one.

“I can’t necessarily accept his apology that’s something that is going to take time. I definitely hope and pray in the future that I can accept it whole heartedly,” said Johnson’s daughter, Dr. Shernaye Johnson.

What the family of Johnson did accept is the plea deal that Watson took. Taking the death penalty off the table is something prosecutors were seeking.

“We believe that today’s conviction and sentence of life without the possibility of parole, plus 25 years in prison, is justice being served for the family of Debra Johnson,” said District Attorney Mark Davidson.

The Johnson family did agree to the deal, saying it is a little bittersweet.

“We’re definitely glad he acknowledged some accountability to his role in the murder of my mother,” said Johnson’s daughter. Debra Johnson.”

Watson strangled and raped Johnson, an administrator, for the Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC) at her house on the prison grounds in Lauderdale County. Watson was serving a 15-year sentence for the kidnapping and beating of his wife. After Johnson was murdered, Watson escaped on a prison tractor.

He was captured after a five-day manhunt. Johnson worked for TDOC for 38 years. Her family would like to see some policy changes for female prison employees to keep them safer. They added that Johnson’s murder was ironic, considering she was an advocate for inmates.

“She believed that people can change. She didn’t think that because you made a bad decision that defined your entire life,” said. Dr. Shernaye Johnson.

Watson agreed not to appeal the case, meaning the Johnson family will not have to face him again. TDOC will decide where Watson will spend the rest of his life behind bars.

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