Trial in killing of Tennessee prison official moved to 2021

RIPLEY, Tenn. (AP) — The trial of a Tennessee convict charged with killing a corrections official before escaping prison on a tractor has been delayed until next year.

Curtis Ray Watson had been scheduled to face trial Oct. 26 in the killing of Tennessee Department of Correction administrator Debra Johnson. Her body was found in her home on the grounds of a state prison in Henning in August 2019.

Johnson had been a state employee for 38 years and oversaw wardens at several area prisons.

Watson is charged with premeditated murder, rape and escape. He has not entered a plea. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Watson’s lawyer, David Stockton, said a judge has moved the trial to Sept. 20, 2021. Stockton said he hasn't had face-to-face contact with Watson since March due to coronavirus-related policies at the prison where Watson is held.

Stockton said he has filed a motion asking for access to Watson. Defense attorneys have only been able to speak with him by phone, Stockton said.

“The need to reset the trial is also related to the need to evaluate volumes of discovery and obtain the services of experts,” Stockton said.

Jury trials in Lauderdale County have been reset until January, at the earliest. The courtroom and jury room “are not able to be in compliance with the COVID-19 requirements of social distancing to keep the jurors safe during the proceedings,” assistant district attorney Julie K. Pillow said in an emailed statement.

Sequestration for the jury would also create possible risks of virus exposure, Pillow said.

Watson is serving a 15-year sentence for especially aggravated kidnapping.