Tenn. inmate gets life sentence for killing prison official during escape

Don Jacobson

June 14 (UPI) -- A Tennessee inmate received a life sentence without parole Monday after pleading guilty to raping and murdering a prison administrator during an escape two years ago.

Curtis Ray Watson pleaded guilty to nine counts, including felony murder in perpetration of rape, in the slaying of Tennessee Department of Correction administrator Debra Johnson while staging an escape from the West Tennessee State Penitentiary on Aug. 7, 2019.


Lauderdale County Judge Joe Walker handed down the life sentence, with an additional 25 years added on, at a courtroom in Ripley, Tenn.

State prosecutors previously said they had planned to seek the death sentence for Watson, 46, but instead accepted a plea deal in which he agreed to enter a guilty plea in exchange for forfeiting any chance of parole.

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Johnson, a 64-year-old penitentiary corrections administrator, was found dead in her residence on prison grounds about an hour after prison officials discovered Watson was missing from his work station.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said she was strangled and sexually assaulted by Watson, who at the time was serving a 15-year sentence on especially aggravated kidnapping.


Before his sentencing, Watson issued an apology to Debra Johnson's family, saying, "My apologies, please forgive me for everything I've ever done."

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But Shernaye Johnson, the victim's daughter, told reporters after the hearing she had trouble accepting the 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."

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