Lawsuit filed in Tennessee prison administrator's killing

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The daughter of a Tennessee corrections administrator who authorities say was killed during a prison escape has sued the facility and its warden for negligence in her death.

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Shernaye Johnson has filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking a jury trial and $5 million in damages for the death of her mother, Debra Johnson, whose body was found in her home on the grounds of the West Tennessee State Penitentiary in rural Henning in August 2019.

The lawsuit, filed on Friday, alleges that the state of Tennessee, prison warden John Fitz and Department of Correction officers failed to make sure Johnson's home was secure and did not provide adequate staffing that would have prevented her death.

Johnson had been a state employee for 38 years and oversaw wardens at several area prisons. Curtis Ray Watson has been indicted on 15 state charges including premeditated murder, rape and escape. He has not entered a plea. A judge has set an Oct. 26 trial date in Lauderdale County. Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty.

Authorities said Watson was on regular lawn care duties at the prison when he sexually assaulted and strangled Johnson, 64, at her home on the prison grounds. Watson escaped on a tractor that he then ditched in a cotton field about 2 miles (3 kilometers) from the prison, authorities said. He was found four days later after an intense manhunt.

The 18,000-acre (7,284-hectare) prison is located about 60 miles (96 kilometers) north of Memphis.

Watson has been serving a 15-year sentence for especially aggravated kidnapping in an incident involving his wife. 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. The cart had been seen at Johnson's house more than two hours before her body was found inside, according to court testimony from prison guards.

The Tennessee Department of Correction declined comment on the lawsuit, which alleges that the state and prison officials left her home unsafe by failing to monitor her front door with cameras or use other security measures.

The suit claims that the warden knew of the threat Watson posed and the prison was “woefully understaffed and inmates were insufficiently monitored.” Prison guards failed to respond appropriately after Watson was found to be missing, the suit alleges.

Prison staff “created and willfully ignored an unreasonably dangerous situation as it developed with Watson,” the lawsuit claims. “TDOC officials recklessly placed Inmate Watson in a position of trust, with lax supervision.”