MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Prosecutors will seek the death penalty against a man charged with kidnapping a Memphis, Tennessee, school teacher during an early-morning run and killing her, a district attorney said Thursday.
Cleotha Abston is charged with snatching Eliza Fletcher from a street near the University of Memphis on Sept. 2 and forcing her into an SUV. Her body was found days later near a vacant duplex. He has pleaded not guilty to charges including first-degree murder and especially aggravated kidnapping.
Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy has filed notice with the court that prosecutors will seek the death penalty if Abston is convicted of first-degree murder, Judge Lee Coffee said. State law says cases that are considered heinous, atrocious, and cruel are eligible for the death penalty, Mulroy said outside of court.
“We are alleging that applies in this case,” Mulroy said.
No trial date has been set. Coffee said he would like it to take place this year, but it was not clear if lawyers could meet that timetable.
“If it’s in the absolute control of this court, this case will be tried before the end of 2023,” Coffee said.
The killing of Fletcher, a 34-year-old kindergarten teacher and mother of two, shocked the Memphis community and led to a flood of support for her family. Runners in Memphis and several other cities held an early-morning running event in her honor a week after she was abducted.
Abston, also known as Cleotha Henderson, is also charged with raping a woman in September 2021 — about a year before Fletcher was killed. He was not arrested on the rape charges before Fletcher’s killing because of a long delay in processing the sexual assault kit, authorities have said.
Abston, 39, previously served 20 years in prison for a kidnapping he committed at age 16.
In the Fletcher case, Abston was arrested after police detected his DNA on sandals found near the location where Fletcher was last seen, an arrest affidavit said.
An autopsy report showed Fletcher died of a gunshot wound to the head. She also had injuries to her right leg and jaw fractures.
A massive police search for Fletcher lasted more than three days. Her body was found near an abandoned duplex. Officers noticed vehicle tracks next to the driveway, and they “smelled an odor of decay,” an affidavit said.
Mulroy, the Democratic district attorney, was sworn into office the day before Fletcher disappeared. He has said he has long opposed the death penalty and would vote against it if he were a legislator, but that as district attorney and Memphis’ top prosecutor, he is required to follow the law when it comes to cases that could qualify for capital punishment.
“I am very clear on this, as a policy matter I am opposed to the death penalty,” Mulroy said. “If I were a legislature, I would vote against it. However as D.A. I have to follow the law.”
Mulroy previously announced that prosecutors would seek the death penalty in an unrelated first-degree murder case against a man charged with killing three people and wounding three others during a live-streamed shooting rampage shortly after Mulroy took office.
Fletcher’s family was consulted about the decision to seek the death penalty against Abston and supports it, Mulroy said.