Prosecutors will seek the death penalty for the man accused of abducting Memphis, Tennessee teacher Eliza Fletcher while she was on a morning jog and killing her last year.
Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy, who has been a staunch critic of capital punishment, announced Thursday he would pursue the death penalty if 39-year-old Cleotha Abston-Henderson is convicted of first-degree murder. Factors that warrant a death penalty under state law include that a killing was “heinous, atrocious and cruel.”
Fletcher was last seen being pulled into a car near the University of Memphis campus on Sept. 2. Abston-Henderson was arrested two days later and charged with first-degree murder, especially aggravated kidnapping, unlawful possession of a firearm and tampering with evidence. He has pleaded not guilty.
What happened to Eliza Fletcher?
Fletcher, a 34-year-old mother of two who taught junior kindergarten at St. Mary’s Episcopal School in Memphis, was first reported missing after she didn’t return from her early morning jog.
She was last seen at about 4:20 a.m. that day. Surveillance footage captured images of a man approaching Fletcher before forcing her into the passenger side of a GMC Terrain. “There appeared to be a struggle” during the abduction, a police affidavit said.
Her cell phone and water bottle were found outside a University of Memphis-owned house after she disappeared, and the SUV was found a day after the abduction. Police linked DNA from shoes found at the scene of the abduction to Abston-Henderson, and his phone also placed him at the scene.
Her partially decomposed body was found in tall grass, behind an abandoned house roughly five miles from the campus after an extensive three-day search. An autopsy report obtained by The Memphis Commercial Appeal, part of the USA TODAY Network, indicated she died of a gunshot wound to the back right side of her head and blunt force trauma.
Abduction, killing rocked community
Community members rallied around Fletcher’s family after she was reported missing and her death shook the Memphis community and drew national attention.
She was “such a joy to so many,” her family said in a statement after her body was found.
Fletcher was an avid runner and jogger, who finished the St. Jude marathon in Memphis with a time of 3:26:09, a time that qualified her for the Boston Marathon, one of the most elite marathons in the world.
Hundreds of women gathered a week after her abduction and killing to finish the run she had started that morning, while spectators lined parts of the 8.2 mile course, holding signs and candles.
“Running is a privilege and running for Liza is also a privilege,” said Mary Unverferth, one of the runners.
WHO WAS ELIZA FLETCHER?A mom, teacher and avid runner
Prosecutor: Circumstances warrant the death penalty
Fletcher’s family was consulted and supports the decision to pursue the death penalty, Mulroy said.
He said Thursday he has a duty to follow the law, even if he disagrees with the policy. He said the case includes factors that are “heinous, atrocious and cruel” and violent beyond what’s required to kill someone, warranting the death penalty.
“You often see heinous, atrocious and cruel aggravating factors found in cases in which torture was involved,” he said. “We are alleging that applies in this case.”
The Shelby County District Attorney’s office also requested investigative findings from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Those files include a ballistics report, a firearm investigation along with serology and DNA testing.
In court Thursday, Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Lee V. Coffee said he would like to see the case move to trial before the end of the year. Abston-Henderson is due back in court on Aug. 4, which is only set as a report date.
Suspect has other kidnapping, rape charges on record
Abston-Henderson previously spent 20 years in prison after being convicted of the kidnapping of Memphis-based lawyer Kemper Durand, which he committed when he was 16, and was released in 2020.
Since his arrest, he was also charged with the rape of Alicia Franklin, which is alleged to have occurred about a year before Fletcher’s abduction. A lawsuit brought by Franklin alleges police failed to adequately investigate Abston-Henderson in time to help Fletcher.
Contributing: Brett Barrouquere and Gina Butkovich, Memphis Commercial Appeal; The Associated Press