Image Credit: rapecrisis.com
The Tennessee Conservative [By Jason Vaughn] –
Cleotha Abston Henderson, the man accused of the kidnapping and murder of a Memphis teacher Eliza Fletcher, has now been connected to a 2021 abduction after results of a backlogged DNA kit were received. A new law that went into effect earlier this year would have prevented both of those crimes by keeping him in jail.
The formerly convicted felon, who was known as Cleotha Abston until he requested in court that he be referred to by the last name Henderson, had already served 20 years of a 24-year sentence before being released in 2020. His record shows that he had prior convictions for kidnapping, rape, and aggravated assault.
He is now charged with grabbing 34-year-old Eliza Fletcher as she was jogging and forcing her into an SUV on September 2. She was found dead behind an abandoned home days later.
According to House Speaker Cameron Sexton, Tennessee’s new Truth in Sentencing law would have protected both of Henderson’s alleged victims.
“If our truth in sentencing bill had been in effect back then, for 100% sentencing, he wouldn’t have been out,” Sexton told Fox News Digital. “If he served the full 24 years, we would have two less victims, and one would not be dead.”
Fletcher’s life might have also been saved if Henderson had been identified sooner as a suspect in a 2021 sexual assault case that had been left unsolved.
TBI spokesperson Keli McAlister told Fox News that evidence was received by the office for the 2021 incident back in September of that year but no request had been made to expedite the testing. The kit was finally pulled for processing in June 2022 with an initial report being made on August 29. Results were entered into the CODIS database on September 5, matching the DNA to Henderson just days after Fletcher was abducted.
According to the TBI, it typically takes between 33 and 49 weeks for DNA results to be received if no request is made to rush those results.
The agency stated, “TBI accepts rush DNA cases when requested by a local investigative agency, as we did in the recent Eliza Fletcher case. Last weekend, the work of our scientists identified Cleotha Henderson as the suspect less than 18 hours after receiving key evidence, which was critical in his subsequent apprehension.”
McAlister noted that the DNA testing was handled by the TBI Crime Lab in Jackson, which only currently has 4 scientists on staff. Records show that Shelby County submitted 316 requests for sexual assault testing last year, the largest number of any Tennessee County. Knox County followed with the second largest number, coming in at 168 requests.
TBI says they requested funding for additional staff in their Forensics Unit during the last budget cycle but only half of those requested were fulfilled. They are expecting to add additional scientists to each of their labs within the next month.
Tennessee Senators Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty announced on Wednesday that they are pushing for the federal government to step in and help solve the backlog of rape kits. A newly proposed bill would provide federal funding to help process the estimated 100,000 backlogged kits across the nation and help local law enforcement units in their response to violent crime.
The Restoring Law and Order Act, according to Blackburn, would help fund the costs of dealing with the backlogged kits and would also appoint the federal Government Accountability Office to look into the causes of the delays in processing.
“Why is it taking so long to get these processed when it is a violent crime?” Blackburn asked. “Why does it take so long to get these returned to law enforcement so that they are able to apprehend these criminals?”
The state legislature passed a law last year that required TBI to track all agencies that deal with rape kits to ensure that they were handled in a timely fashion. The new law requires that kits be picked up within 7 days and submitted to the lab within 30 days. Blackburn acknowledges that the continued delays are partly to blame for Fletcher’s death.
“Tragically the rape kit was returned the same day that Fletcher’s body was discovered with DNA allegedly matching that of Fletcher’s killer,” Blackburn said. “Had it not taken so long, Eliza Fletcher would be alive today and her killer would be behind bars.”
About the Author: Jason Vaughn, Media Coordinator for The Tennessee Conservative ~ Jason previously worked for a legacy publishing company based in Crossville, TN in a variety of roles through his career. Most recently, he served as Deputy Director for their flagship publication. Prior, he was a freelance journalist writing articles that appeared in the Herald Citizen, the Crossville Chronicle and The Oracle among others. He graduated from Tennessee Technological University with a Bachelor’s in English-Journalism, with minors in Broadcast Journalism and History. Contact Jason at news@TennesseeConservativeNews.com