Jury convicts Memphis, Tennessee, man of raping a woman a year before jogger’s killing

By The Associated Press

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee man has been found guilty of raping a woman a year before he was charged with kidnapping and killing a school teacher who was on an early morning run.

A jury in Memphis convicted 40-year-old Cleotha Abston of kidnapping and raping the woman in September 2021.

According to The Daily Memphian, the jury’s Friday decision found Abston guilty on three counts of aggravated rape, especially aggravated kidnapping and unlawful possession of a weapon. Jurors had heard testimony from witnesses Tuesday and Wednesday, and then closing arguments on Thursday.

The Memphis news outlet reports that the victim reported she had been raped on Sept. 21, 2021, after meeting Abston on a social dating site and agreeing to meet him at his apartment.

Abston allegedly held her at gunpoint, covered her face with a T-shirt, walked her outside the apartment and raped her in the backseat of his girlfriend’s vehicle.

“I didn’t want to die,” she testified Tuesday, explaining why she complied.

Abston was not charged in the 2021 rape case until after being charged with snatching Eliza Fletcher from a street near the University of Memphis on Sept. 2, 2022, and forcing her into an SUV. Her body was found days later near a vacant duplex.

Abston 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. He has pleaded not guilty. 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.

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 events in her honor a week after she was abducted. A second run honoring Fletcher was held last year.

Abston was arrested after police detected his DNA on sandals found near the location where Fletcher was last seen, an arrest affidavit said. An autopsy report showed Fletcher died of a gunshot wound to the head. She also had injuries to her right leg and jaw fractures.

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.

Abston’s lawyer, Juni Ganguli, had filed a change of venue motion seeking to have jurors from the Nashville area hear the rape case, but a judge denied the request. Ganguli had said that heavy media coverage and social media commentary threatened Abston’s ability to receive a fair trial if Memphis-area jurors are used.

Ganguli had said social media comments about news stories in the Fletcher case have been overwhelmingly negative and toxic.

The rape victim in the 2021 case has since sued the city of Memphis on allegations that the Memphis Police Department did not properly investigate her case, but the lawsuit was dismissed by a judge.

The Associated Press

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