Prosecutors in Tennessee will be seeking the death penalty against a 39-year-old man accused of kidnapping a kindergarten teacher who was out on an early morning jog last year and brutally killing her.
Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy — who staunchly opposes the death penalty as a matter of policy — on Thursday formally announced his office would be seeking the death penalty against Cleotha Abston for the 2022 abduction and slaying of Eliza Fletcher, a wife and mother to two children, authorities confirmed to Law&Crime.
Abston is accused of severely beating Fletcher, who had multiple fractures to her face, before shooting her in the back of the head execution-style.
Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Lee V. Coffee on Thursday said the manner in which Abston allegedly killed Fletcher was “heinous, atrocious and cruel,” the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported.
Surveillance video obtained by authorities appears to show Fletcher being forced into a dark-colored SUV around 4 a.m. on Sept. 2, 2022, while she was jogging in the 3800 block of Central Avenue, near the University of Memphis campus. The footage showed a person exiting the parked SUV as Fletcher passed by, then running toward her, grabbing her, and forcing her into the passenger’s side door of the vehicle. Authorities said they found evidence of a struggle between Fletcher and her kidnapper.
After authorities discovered Fletcher’s body on Sept. 5, Abston was charged with first-degree murder and first-degree murder in perpetration of kidnapping. He had already been charged the previous day with aggravated kidnapping and unlawful carrying of a weapon.
Fletcher’s body was found about 7 miles from where she was taken in a “moderate to advanced state of decomposition,” the autopsy report stated.
“There are two semicircular defects to the skull consistent with a single gunshot to the head with the bullet traveling in a posterior to anterior (back to front) and right to left direction,” a forensic anthropologist with the West Tennessee Regional Center wrote in a summary of the report. “There are fractures to the maxillae consistent with a blunt impact to the central facial area.”
Prosecutors say they have a plethora of evidence against Abston in addition to the security footage.
For example, Abston’s DNA was found on a pair of slide sandals recovered from the scene. Abston was allegedly seen on another surveillance video wearing similar slides days earlier. Additionally, data obtained from Abston’s cellphone placed him near the intersection where Fletcher was abducted about the time of her disappearance, and his brother allegedly told investigators that Abston was “acting very strange” when he returned home on Sept. 4.
Following Thursday’s proceeding, DA Mulroy explained that despite being opposed to capital punishment, it is still his responsibility to abide by the laws of Tennessee.
“My stance on the death penalty is the same as it was a year ago,” he said, the Commercial Appeal reported. “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.”
After his arrest, Abston was charged in a separate kidnapping that allegedly took place on Sept. 21, 2021. He faces additional counts of aggravated rape, especially aggravated kidnapping, and unlawful carrying or possession of a weapon in that case.
Alicia Franklin, the alleged victim of the 2021 kidnapping, claimed that Abston forced her into his car at gunpoint and raped her. She has since filed a lawsuit against the city of Memphis over what she described as its negligent failure to investigate the attack.
“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,” the complaint states.
Authorities have confirmed that Abston was not arrested for Franklin’s rape because of a delay in processing the sexual assault kit obtained by investigators, Nashville ABC affiliate WKRN-TV reported.
Abston had previously been convicted in the 2000 kidnapping of a prominent area attorney and forcing him to take money out of an ATM. That was when he was only 16 years old. He was released in 2020 after serving 20 years behind bars.
Fletcher, a junior kindergarten teacher at St. Mary’s Episcopal School, was the granddaughter of Joseph Orgill III, a billionaire who ran Memphis-based hardware distributor Orgill Inc. In 2021, Forbes listed Orgill as number 143 among the largest private companies in the U.S.
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Prosecutors seek death penalty for Cleotha Abston
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