Change of venue denied in rape trial of suspect in Eliza Fletcher killing

Posted at 8:10 AM, January 5, 2024

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee man accused of raping a woman a year before he was charged with kidnapping and killing a schoolteacher will have his fate decided by a Memphis-area jury when he goes to trial in the sexual assault case, a judge has ruled.

Cleotha Abston appears in court

FILE – Cleotha Abston appears in Judge Louis Montesi courtroom for his arraignment on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022 in Memphis, Tenn. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian via AP)

Shelby County Judge Lee Coffee on Wednesday denied a change of venue motion filed by Juni Ganguli, the lawyer for Cleotha Abston, news outlets reported. Ganguli argued that Abston could not get a fair trial from Shelby County jurors because of intense media publicity surrounding the 2021 rape and the 2022 killing of Eliza Fletcher.

Abston was not arrested on the rape charges before Eliza Fletcher’s killing because of a long delay in processing the sexual assault kit, authorities have said. Abston has pleaded not guilty in both cases.

Coffee has scheduled an April 8 trial for Abston on the charges of kidnapping and raping a woman in September 2021. Abston is charged with snatching Fletcher from a street near the University of Memphis during her early-morning run on Sept. 2, 2022, and forcing her into an SUV. Her body was found days later near a vacant duplex.

The April rape trial will take place before the trial in the Fletcher case. Prosecutors say they will pursue the death penalty if Abston is convicted of first-degree murder in Fletcher’s death, but no trial date has been set in that case.

eliza fletcher portrait

FILE – In this undated photo provided by the Memphis Police Department, 34-year-old Eliza Fletcher, of Memphis, Tenn., is shown.  (Courtesy of Memphis Police Department via AP, File)

Abston, who also has used the name Cleotha Henderson, was charged with the 2021 rape days after he was charged with Fletcher’s killing. After Fletcher’s death, the Legislature passed a law requiring the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to issue a quarterly report on sexual assault kit testing times.

Ganguli had asked the judge to bring in a jury from Nashville for the April rape trial. Coffee said Abston could get a fair trial with a Shelby County jury, citing the 2022 murder trial in the killing of former NBA player Lorenzen Wright as an example of a case that had heavy media attention, yet used a local jury.

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. A second run honoring Fletcher was held last year.