Convict charged in murder, rape of TDOC employee sentenced to life without parole

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HENNING, Tenn. (WKRN/WREG) – Curtis Watson, the man charged with killing Tennessee Department of Correction Administrator Debra Johnson before escaping prison on a tractor in August 2019, entered a plea of no contest, which has the same effect as a guilty plea, on the murder charge.

Johnson’s son told News 2 the district attorney notified the family last week about the plea deal. WREG reports Watson was sentence to life without parole on a first-degree murder charge in court.

In addition, Watson was sentenced to 25 years on a charge of aggravated rape and several years on various other charges.

State prosecutors previously said they planned to seek the death penalty in the case.

“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 of the 38-year veteran of the department. “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.”

Johnson’s son also said Debra’s family and some close coworkers were in court Monday. Watson issued an apology to the victim’s family on Monday.

In August of 2020, Governor Bill Lee signed Executive Order 56 to rename the Tennessee Prison for Women after Johnson on the one-year anniversary of her death. The facility is now known as the Debra K. Johnson Rehabilitation Center.

As a result of the guilty plea, the Department of Corrections said in a statement that it would make sure Watson would be housed and supervised appropriately.

Johnson’s daughter said she was pleased with the outcome and the family hopes to move on and heal.

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