MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The man charged with raping and killing a Tennessee kindergarten teacher during a pre-dawn run in Memphis last year pleaded not guilty Friday.
Cleotha Henderson, who has also used the name Cleotha Abston, was indicted last week on charges that include first-degree murder and especially aggravated kidnapping, The Daily Memphian reported. The first-degree murder charge carries a sentence of life in prison or 60 calendar years. However, the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office has indicated it may seek an enhanced sentence of life without parole or the death penalty.
Police have said Eliza Fletcher, 34, was running on the University of Memphis campus when she was forced into a vehicle after a struggle about 4 a.m. on Sept 2. Her body was found three days later behind a vacant home after a massive police search.
The killing of Fletcher, a mother of two, shocked the Memphis community led to a flood of support for her family. Runners in Memphis and several other U.S. cities held an early-morning running event in her honor a week after she was kidnapped.
At his arraignment in Shelby County Criminal Court on Friday, Henderson pleaded not guilty to all charges related to Fletcher’s death.
Criminal Court Division Judge Lee Coffee warned members of Fletcher’s family who were present in the courtroom that the path to trial could be a long one.
“If this case goes to trial it will probably be two to three years before it’s actually tried,” he said. “I hope we can compress it to less than that.”
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.