Prosecutors seeking death penalty against Tennessee inmate

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RIPLEY, Tenn. (AP) — State prosecutors will be seeking the death penalty in the trial of a Tennessee convict charged with killing a corrections administrator and escaping prison on a tractor.

Lauderdale County district attorney Mark Davidson said Tuesday that he has filed a notice of intent to seek death if Curtis Ray Watson is convicted of first-degree murder in the death of longtime Tennessee Department of Correction administrator Debra Johnson.

Watson has been indicted on 15 counts including premeditated murder, rape and escape. He has not entered a plea in the case. Judge Joe Walker set an Oct. 26 trial date during a brief hearing in Ripley on Tuesday.

Watson, 44, was on regular lawn care duties at West Tennessee State Penitentiary near Henning when he sexually assaulted and killed corrections administrator Debra Johnson, 64, at her home on the prison grounds that morning, 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.

The 18,000-acre prison is located about 60 miles (96 kilometers) north of Memphis.

Watson has been serving a 15-year sentence for especially aggravated kidnapping. He also had been previously convicted of aggravated child abuse.

Watson had access to a tractor and a golf cart as a “trusty” — an inmate granted special privileges as a trustworthy person, authorities said.

Davidson told reporters about the filing outside the courtroom after the hearing. During the proceedings, Watson only said “no sir” to a question from the judge about whether Watson would seek private counsel. He is represented by a public defender who did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Davidson said his office consulted Johnson's family about seeking capital punishment. Johnson had been a state employee for 38 years and oversaw wardens at several area prisons.

Factors that played a part in the decision to seek death include Watson's prior felony convictions and that the killing against a law enforcement officer came during an escape, Davidson said.

“It's the ultimate punishment,” Davidson said. “We reserve it for the worst of the worst.”

Watson also is charged with felony murder, aggravated burglary, escape, 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.

Watson has been found mentally competent to stand trial.

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