With family members of Eliza Fletcher in the courtroom on Friday, Cleotha Henderson entered a “not guilty” plea to kidnapping and killing her five months earlier.
“Yes, sir,” was Henderson’s barely audible response when Criminal Court Judge Lee V. Coffee asked if he understood that a first-degree murder conviction could mean he would be sentenced to death or life imprisonment, which equates to a mandatory 51 years of a 60-year sentence.
Henderson has used the name Cleotha Abston. He also is charged with first-degree murder in attempt to kidnap, especially aggravated kidnapping, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, and tampering with evidence.
Fletcher, a kindergarten teacher, was jogging at about 4 a.m. on the University of Memphis campus when she was attacked on Sept. 2, 2022. Police concluded Henderson forced Fletcher into a vehicle after a struggle. Investigators found a pair of sandals at the scene with his DNA and arrested him the next day.
On Sept. 5, Fletcher’s body was found behind a vacant home after a massive search.
Declared indigent, Henderson is represented by court-appointed public defender Jennifer Case, who also is his attorney in another case.
Coffee will hear both cases.
Already a convicted felon, Henderson is charged with possession of a weapon during the aggravated kidnapping and rape of Alicia Franklin – now a young mother pursuing a college degree – in September 2021. Last September, Henderson pled not guilty to the attack on Franklin, who was pregnant when prosecutors charge she was raped.
Testing of Franklin’s sexual assault kit had been delayed just as hundreds of other test kits were backlogged for testing. Franklin is suing the City of Memphis, with her and her attorneys asserting that Fletcher would not have been killed if Memphis police had taken her case more seriously. The city has moved to have the suit dismissed.
Henderson was sentenced to prison in 2000 at the age of 16 in the abduction of a prominent Memphis attorney. He spent two decades behind bars.
Coffee expressed condolences to Fletcher’s family and said the prosecution of Henderson would be a journey.
“Please be patient and realize that this is not something that will be resolved this month, next month, or even this year or next year,” he said.
“Stay in touch with Mr. Hagerman, Paul Hagerman, prosecutor in this case. It could be two to three years before the case actually goes to trial. Please know that we will expedite the process as much as possible.”