MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A hearing has been set to discuss a plea deal for a Tennessee prison inmate charged with killing a corrections administrator during a 2019 escape attempt, a prosecutor said Wednesday.
Lauderdale County District Attorney Mark Davidson told The Associated Press that a hearing has been scheduled for Monday in the case of Curtis Ray Watson. In an email, Davidson declined to discuss any details about the possible plea deal.
Watson has been indicted on 15 counts in the Aug. 7, 2019, killing of Tennessee Department of Correction Administrator Debra Johnson. The charges include premeditated murder, rape and escape.
Watson was on regular lawn care duties at West Tennessee State Penitentiary near Henning when he sexually assaulted and killed Johnson, 64, at her home on the prison grounds that morning, authorities said.
Watson had access to a tractor and a golf cart as a “trusty” — an inmate granted special privileges as a trustworthy person, authorities said.
Watson escaped on a tractor, which was left in a cotton field about 2 miles (3 kilometers) from the prison, authorities said. Watson was found four days later after an intense manhunt among homes and fields near the prison, which is about 60 miles (96 kilometers) north of Memphis.
Watson, a two-time felon, has not entered a plea in the case. Prosecutors had said they would be seeking the death penalty should Watson be convicted at trial.
Johnson had been a state employee for 38 years and oversaw wardens at several area prisons
Watson has been serving a 15-year sentence for especially aggravated kidnapping. Watson illegally confined his wife and hit her with an aluminum baseball bat in July 2012, court documents showed. His sentence began in 2013 and was set to expire in 2025, officials said.
He also had been previously convicted of aggravated child abuse.
Watson also is charged with felony murder, aggravated burglary, theft and kidnapping. 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, officials said.
Prison officers testified in previous court hearings that they could not locate Watson on the morning of his escape. They found Watson’s golf cart at Johnson’s house about 8:30 a.m., prison officers said.
Phone records show Johnson was talking on the phone at 8:10 a.m., according to an affidavit.
Watson drove away from the prison sometime between 9 and 10 a.m. on a tractor, the affidavit says. He was discovered missing at 11 a.m.
When Johnson didn’t show up for work, co-workers discovered her body at her home at 11:30 a.m., according to the affidavit.
A prison nurse testified she found a cellphone cord wrapped around Johnson’s neck. A medical examiner ruled Johnson was strangled.