Man accused of killing TDOC administrator Debra Johnson pleads guilty to rape, murder

LAUDERDALE COUNTY, Tenn. — For the first time, we are hearing from the prison inmate who pleaded guilty to raping and murdering a Tennessee Department of Corrections administrator in 2019.

A judge sentenced Curtis Watson on Monday afternoon to life without parole.

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Watson apologized to a courtroom filled with Debra Johnson’s family members, coworkers and law enforcement.

“I can’t say I necessarily accept his apology,” said the victim’s daughter Dr. Shernaye Johnson.

Monday afternoon was tough for Johnson and her family.

She watched as the man who killed her mother, Debra Johnson, made a plea to save his own life, keeping him from death row.

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

In addition to the apology, Watson pleaded guilty to felony murder and the perpetration of rape.

A plea that means he will spend the rest of his life in prison.

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“We are very glad to hear this case is finally, this chapter has closed and we can finally move on with the process,” said Johnson.

Johnson still copes with the loss of her mother and tries to forget how she died.

Prosecutors said Debra was found naked with a cord wrapped around her neck at her home on the prison grounds in August of 2019.

Search crews spent five days looking for Watson after he escaped from the West Tennessee State Penitentiary in Henning.

“In the future, we can only hope that TDOC helps and works on policies so that no other women, especially state workers have a likelihood of the same type of violence against them,” said Johnson.

Johnson described her mother as a loving person who believed people could change even if they made bad decisions in the past.

A woman who devoted 38 years to the department of corrections.

Johnson was relieved Watson will serve life in prison without parole but still doesn’t know how she feels about his apology.

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

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