The Memphis Police Department investigated the alleged killer of Eliza Fletcher for a separate crime — a reported rape — last year but failed to arrest him despite evidence of his involvement, according to two people familiar with the investigation.
DNA analysis of the rape kit from that 2021 incident was finally completed on Sept. 5, 2022 — days after Fletcher was abducted — and matched with that of Fletcher’s alleged killer, Cleotha Abston (who is also known by the last name Henderson).
MPD submitted the rape kit to the state crime lab two days after the Sept. 21, 2021 rape, according to a statement released by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022. However, a testing backlog and MPD’s decision to not request expedited analysis led to an 11-month delay, according to the TBI. More information about TBI’s testing is available opens in a new windowhere.
In September 2021, a woman told police that Abston had abducted and raped her at gunpoint, yet Abston, who was released from prison in November 2020 for another kidnapping 20 years earlier, remained free until he was arrested earlier this week for Fletcher’s murder.
It was not clear Saturday precisely why police had failed to arrest and charge Abston last year. One person familiar with the case said police had strong evidence of Abston’s involvement. Another stated flatly, “They have a good case.”
Abston was formally charged with the 2021 rape Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, six days after Fletcher was abducted while jogging near the University of Memphis campus.
MPD Major Karen Rudolph provided this statement Saturday, Sept. 10: “This inquiry pertains to an ongoing criminal prosecution. However, our investigative unit has advised that a sexual assault report was taken on September 21, 2021, and a sexual assault kit was submitted to TBI on September 23, 2021. An official CODIS hit was not received until after the unfortunate event that occurred on September 2, 2022. Probable cause to make a physical arrest of any suspect did not exist until after the CODIS hit had been received.”
CODIS refers to an identification made by running a suspect’s DNA profile through the FBI’s database, the Combined DNA Index System. TBI operates the state crime lab which conducts DNA testing on rape kits and other evidence.
Both individuals who spoke about the previous rape investigation asked that their identities not be revealed.
The second person provided more specific details about the investigation, asserting that the 2021 rape victim provided police with Abston’s phone number, his social media handle, his home address and a description of his car.
But when police did a photo lineup, the victim grew confused.
“She said, ‘I think it’s number five. But he didn’t have dreadlocks.’ So, (the detectives) said, ‘Note to file: Get a more recent photo.’ And they never did,’’ the person said.
“They dropped it.’’
In a follow-up email, MPD Maj. Rudolph declined to comment on those assertions, saying, “No additional information is available due to this being relative to ongoing criminal prosecution.’’
Online records maintained by the Shelby County Criminal Court Clerk’s Office show a grand jury indicted Abston in connection with the 2021 rape on Thursday, Sept. 8. Those records show he was charged with aggravated rape, especially aggravated kidnapping and unlawful possession of a weapon.
Word of those charges pulsed through the network of criminal defense lawyers late Friday.
“We’re going to have some sort of battle with the police about their dereliction of duty to let this happen because they wouldn’t prosecute this guy,’’ said Michael Working, a prominent Memphis defense attorney.
Police arrested Abston Sunday, Sept. 3, after quickly linking him to the disappearance of Fletcher, 34, a pre-kindergarten teacher and mother of two small children. Abston was quickly identified through video surveillance cameras that captured the kidnapping, and also through DNA evidence.
Police said officers obtained DNA from Abston’s sandals left behind at the crime scene. They submitted that DNA to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and obtained a match to Abston within hours. The DNA sample was matched to Abston through CODIS.
Abston’s DNA was on file from his 2001 conviction for the kidnapping of Memphis attorney Kemper Durand. Abston served 20 years in prison before he was released in late 2020.
Earlier this week, Mayor Jim Strickland angrily criticized the “revolving door” of a lax criminal justice system that is contributing to Memphis’s violent crime problem.
But Working says Strickland’s police department plays a significant role too.
Many rape and murder cases with DNA tests take months and sometimes more than a year to get a DNA match.
Part of the delay stems from a massive backlog in DNA testing caused by MPD’s reluctance for years to test rape kits. The overwhelming majority of those rape victims were Black women.
“We just saw that the TBI turns around DNA test results in less than 24 hours,” Working said, pointing out that 14,000 rape kits — mostly from Black women — went untested for 15 years.
A lawsuit filed against the City of Memphis in 2014 that’s still winding through the system eight years later contends that MPD was negligent in failing to test thousands of rape kits or adequately investigate sexual assault over the course of decades.
The suit, which was filed in Shelby Circuit Court, pursues an allegation the city negligently inflicted emotional distress on victims through careless handling of rape kits and indifference to sexual assault.
The case involves a novel approach, in that it builds on a 2005 Tennessee Supreme Court decision involving the Catholic Diocese of Nashville. In that case, the court allowed families of two non-Catholic boys abused by a priest outside of church activities to pursue discovery against the diocese because church officials had recklessly inflicted emotional harm on the families by not adequately investigating longstanding abuse allegations against the priest inside the church.
The suit is heading toward a showdown in October, when various motions, including one for summary judgment, are expected to be heard.