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Prosecutors Seek Death Penalty Against Man Accused of Kidnapping, Killing Memphis Kindergarten Teacher

Shelby County prosecutors said the 2022 murder of Eliza Fletcher was heinous, cruel and atrocious

By Dorian Geiger
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Prosecutors have indicated they’ll seek the death penalty against a Tennessee man accused of kidnapping and killing a kindergarten teacher during a pre-dawn run last year.

Cleotha Abston, 39, is accused of abducting and fatally shooting Eliza Fletcher while she jogged near the University of Memphis campus in the early morning hours of Sept. 2, 2022. Authorities say Abston took Fletcher against her will before fatally shooting her in the head and dumping her body behind a vacant Memphis duplex. Her body was discovered by authorities three days later after she disappeared during an early morning jog.

Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy has since filed court papers confirming his office will seek the death penalty against Abston if he’s found guilty of first-degree murder in Fletcher’s murder, the Associated Press reported.

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Mulroy, however, stated that Fletcher’s murder meets state requirements for capital punishment, noting that the crime in question must be heinous, cruel or atrocious.  

“We are alleging that applies in this case,” Mulroy told the Associated Press outside court.

A trial date in the matter hasn’t yet been set.

A photo of missing person Eliza Fletcher

“My stance on the death penalty is the same as it was a year ago,” Mulroy said, per the Commercial Appeal. “I believe, as a policy matter, it’s not a good idea. If I were a legislator, I would vote to abolish it. Like I said before, as DA, I have to follow the law. There are going to be some cases in which I seek the death penalty. But, if it were up to me, we would not use that as a method.”

Mulroy, a Democrat who was sworn into office in September 2022, a day before Fletcher vanished, is also pursuing the death penalty in a different case involving a man who accused of killing three people during a spree, parts of which he live streamed, the Associated Press reported.

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Surveillance footage of Fletcher’s suspected kidnapping showed an SUV pass Fletcher before stopping on the morning of her disappearance. The driver, who police say is Abston, later emerged from the GMC Terrain and “aggressively” approached the 34-year-old runner before forcing her into the passenger’s seat.

A police handout of Cleotha Abston

The decision to pursue the death penalty against Abston, however, appears to be in direct conflict with the district attorney’s personal stance towards capital punishment, which he’s openly spoken out against in the past.

DNA evidence found on a sandal at the crime scene linked Abston to Fletcher’s murder, authorities have said.

At the time of her death, Fletcher was a junior kindergarten teacher at St. Mary’s Episcopal School. Her brazen slaying struck a nerve in Memphis and around the country, where running memorials popped up from Florida to Oregon in her name. 

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Following Abston’s 2022 arrest, he was linked to the separate kidnapping and rape a year earlier of a woman named Alicia Franklin. Franklin told authorities that Abston had sexually assaulted her at gunpoint. 

The revelation of Abston’s involvement in that case highlighted the sometimes lengthy delays in processing sexual assault kits in Tennessee. Following Fletcher’s murder, the state legislature passed a law ordering the Tennesse Bureau of Investigation to issue a quarterly report regarding rape kit testing times, per the Associated Press. Prior to Fletcher’s kidnapping, the average processing time was 45.4 weeks. Results are now being processed on average every 22.7 weeks, according to Tennessee Bureau of Investigation data.

A surveillance screengrab of Eliza Fletcher Running before being abducted

Franklin has since sued the City of Memphis for alleged negligence in investigating the case and for not bringing charges against Abston sooner. 

“Cleotha Abston should and could have been arrested and indicted for the aggravated rape of Alicia Franklin many months earlier, most likely in the year 2021, based on all of the information set forth in the preceding paragraphs of this Complaint, and the abduction and murder of Eliza Fletcher would not have occurred,” court documents in the case stated, per Law & Crime.

Abston has an extensive and violent criminal history. He spent two decades behind bars for the violent kidnapping of a lawyer he committed at the age of 16.

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