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Memphis man gets 80 years in prison for raping a woman a year before jogger’s killing

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A Tennessee man was sentenced to 80 years in prison Friday for raping a woman a year before he was charged with kidnapping and killing a school teacher who was on an early morning run.

Cleotha Abston, whose history of criminal charges dates back to the 1990s when he was a juvenile, received 40 years in prison for aggravated rape, 20 years for aggravated kidnapping and another 20 years for being a felon in possession of a weapon. The sentences will run consecutively, or one after the other, Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Lee Coffee ruled.

Abston, 40, was convicted April 12 of raping a woman while holding her at gunpoint in September 2021. The victim said she had been raped after meeting Abston on a social dating site and agreeing to meet him at his apartment. A jury found Abston covered the woman’s face with a T-shirt, walked her outside the apartment and raped her in the backseat of his girlfriend’s vehicle.

Coffee said Abston treated the victim with “exceptional cruelty.”

Abston waived a sentencing hearing in which witnesses could have testified for or against him. His lawyer, Juni Ganguli, said waiving a sentencing hearing meant they were able to avoid a “circus” in court. Prosecutor Paul Hagerman said Abston received what is “effectively a life sentence.”

Ganguli said he plans to appeal the conviction and he will file a motion for a new trial.

“We had a strong defense,” Ganguli told reporters outside court Friday. “I do not believe for a second that he raped or kidnapped or had a gun, that he put a gun to that woman.”

Abston was not charged in the 2021 rape case until after being charged with snatching Eliza Fletcher from a street while she was jogging before dawn 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. 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, who also has gone by the name Cleotha Henderson, 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.

The rape victim in the 2021 case 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.

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