RIPLEY, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee convict accused of killing a corrections administrator and escaping prison could face the death penalty if convicted of first-degree murder, a judge told the prisoner Wednesday.
Curtis Ray Watson appeared before Judge Janice Craig in a video arraignment in Lauderdale County court. Craig told Watson that he is charged with especially aggravated burglary, aggravated sexual assault and escape in addition to the murder charge.
Lauderdale County District Attorney Mark Davidson said his office is considering seeking capital punishment, but a decision would come only after Watson is formally indicted when a grand jury convenes in October. Watson, 44, would face life in prison if the state does not seek death and he is found guilty of first-degree murder.
Watson’s court-appointed public defender Bo Burk made no comments in court and a plea was not entered. Watson’s preliminary hearing is set for Sept. 25.
Watson was brought to the Lauderdale County Justice Center from a jail in another county but he did not appear in person before the judge after his lawyer requested the video arraignment. Only the judge was able to see Watson through her bench camera.
Watson was on lawn mowing duties at West Tennessee State Penitentiary on Aug. 7 when he went to Debra Johnson’s home on prison grounds and killed the 64-year-old corrections administrator, authorities said. Johnson’s body was found in the home with a cord wrapped around her neck, according to court documents.
Watson then escaped on a tractor, which was later found near the prison, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said.
Watson eluded authorities for four days until his arrest Sunday. He was arrested hours after he was recorded on surveillance cameras outside a home in Henning, 10 miles (16 kilometers) from the prison.
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.
Gov. Bill Lee said Monday that Tennessee prison officials followed protocol prior to Watson’s escape. But he added that his administration wants to examine the Department of Correction protocols involved in the escape.
Johnson had been a state employee for 38 years, and oversaw wardens at several area prisons. Visitation and a funeral service are scheduled on Thursday and Friday.