MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - One year after the death of Debra Johnson, her family is suing the state of Tennessee.
“After we bury her we need to focus on why this occurred, how this occurred, how processes allowed this to occur,” said Shernaye Johnson, Debra’s daughter, after her mother died.
A year later Shernaye is seeking justice by way of a lawsuit against the state.
As a prison administrator, Debra lived on the grounds of the West Tennessee State Penitentiary. On Aug. 7, 2019 Johnson was sexually assaulted and strangled with a cell phone cord.
Her death led to a five-day manhunt for escaped inmate Curtis Watson. He is charged with first-degree murder and aggravated sexual battery.
Shernaye’s lawsuit filed Friday calls out the state, Warden John Fitz, and correction officers for “failure to ensure Debra Johnson’s residence was secure or provide adequate staffing and oversight.”
It also outlines how the Tennessee Department of Corrections and Warden Fitz “were aware of Watson’s violent and sexually aggressive history, and nonetheless granted him and allowed him to retain trusty status.”
Debra worked for the state’s Department of Corrections for 38 years.
After her death, her family questioned why someone would do this to her.
“We want to know why? Because my mother was an advocate for inmates,” said Mychal Austin, Debra’s son.
We reached out to the state and the governor’s office about the lawsuit. We heard back from the Department of Corrections, which said they are unable to comment on pending litigation.
The lawsuit is seeking $5 million.