RIPLEY – Though he was transported from the Tipton County Jail to the Lauderdale County Justice Complex for his arraignment, Curtis Ray Watson did not appear in the courtroom.

Instead, the man who escaped from the West Tennessee State Penitentiary a week ago who is now facing rape and murder charges in the death of prison administrator Debra Johnson, was arraigned by video only seen by judge Janice Craig.

“Bond isn’t an issue,” she said, noting Watson was still in the custody of the Tennessee Department of Corrections until at least 2025 on his 2013 conviction for aggravated kidnapping. That conviction is related to a rape reported in 2012, according to the Paris Post-Intelligencer.


Watson is being represented by the public defender’s office, with assistant public defenders Dave Stockton and Frank Deslauriers his assigned counsel.

During an arraignment, a defendant is formally advised of charges and the penalties they carry.

Watson is facing 1 to 6 years for the Class E felony escape charge and 8 to 30 years each for the Class B felonies especially aggravated burglary and aggravated sexual battery. A first-degree murder conviction could mean life in prison, which is 51 years in Tennessee, life in prison without the possibility of parole or even the death penalty.

District Attorney General Mark Davidson said the death penalty is being considered.

It could be up to a year before the case would go to trial, said assistant district attorney Julie Pillow, who also said she hoped to have Watson indicted during Lauderdale County’s October 2019 term.

A preliminary hearing has been scheduled for Sept. 25.

A forensic evaluation has been requested by the public defender’s office to determine Watson’s competency for trial.

Watson, who was wearing a white maximum security jumpsuit, was transported to and from Lauderdale County by the Tennessee Department of Corrections Strike Force 1. After his arraignment he was transferred back into TDOC custody and will be moved to another location.

An update to the affidavit of complaint filed in the murder of Debra Johnson reported the medical examiner’s office confirmed she died by strangulation and evidence shows she was sexually assaulted prior to her murder. Investigators said a prison vest believed to be Watson’s and a cord believed to be the murder weapon were found inside her home. Grass was found on Johnson’s body as well.

Though it is detailed on the public record, The Leader has chosen to be vague in reporting the manner in which Johnson was found.

The TDOC said Watson, who was classified a minimum security inmate, was seen on a golf cart at Johnson’s home at approximately 8:30 a.m., 20 minutes after she is known to have made a phone call. Between 9-10 a.m., Watson is said to have taken another prisoner’s reflective vest and escaped from daily mowing duties on a tractor, which was found 2.1 miles away.

After a five-day manhunt, Watson was found 10 miles away from the prison. The ring camera system at the home of Harvey and Ann Taylor alerted them to movement in their carport which turned out to be Watson. He was arrested eight hours later in a wooded area near Caroline Street.

Watson’s family thanked law enforcement for arresting him and offered their sympathy.

“The family of Curtis Watson would like to extend their deepest and most heartfelt sympathies to the family of Ms Debra Johnson,” said Watson’s daughter, Harley Pole, who lives in Camden.

Watson’s arraignment comes the day before visitation for Johnson is scheduled.

The 64-year-old mother of three began working with TDOC as a correctional officer in January 1981. She rose through the ranks and, at the time of her death, oversaw four correctional facilities in West Tennessee.

Visitation will take place from 3-7 p.m. Thursday at 15th Avenue Baptist Church and for two hours prior to her noon funeral service at The Temple Church Friday, both in Nashville.

“After we bury her, we need to focus on why this occurred, how this occurred, how processes allowed this to occur, and so those are additional answers,” Johnson’s daughter, Shernaye, told WMC-TV Action News 5.

Echo Day
Author: Echo Day

Echo Day is an award-winning journalist, photographer and designer. She is currently The Leader's managing editor.