Eliza Fletcher Suspect Would Still Be Serving Prison Sentence Under New Law

A bill recently signed into law in Tennessee would have kept the man accused of abducting kindergarten teacher and heiress Eliza Fletcher in jail if it had been in effect after his first conviction for kidnapping.

Cleotha Abston, 38, was charged with especially aggravated kidnapping and tampering with evidence in connection with Fletcher's disappearance. He was previously held in state prison after he forced Kemper Durand, a Memphis-based lawyer, into the trunk of his car at gunpoint.

In that particular case, which took place in 2000, Abston was charged with aggravated robbery and especially aggravated kidnapping.

Eliza Fletcher Abduction
Eliza Fletcher (left) and kidnapping suspect Cleotha Abston (right). Abston, 38, has been charged with especially aggravated kidnapping and tampering with evidence in connection with Fletcher's disappearance in Memphis, Tennessee. She has not been found since disappearing early Friday, September 2, 2022, while out on a run. Memphis PD//Shelby County Jail

The new law was sponsored by Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally, both Republicans, and it states that there is no release eligibility for a person who committed certain offenses, one of which is especially aggravated kidnapping.

"The person will serve 100 percent of the sentence imposed by the court undiminished by any sentence reduction credits the person may be eligible for or earn," language from the bill said.

While an individual may earn credits for increased privileges or reduced security classification, the sentence will remain in place. The law would lead to a $25 million increase in state expenditures.

Kidnapping may be broken down into different categories.

Law information website FindLaw reported that especially aggravated kidnapping involves a victim who suffered a serious injury, a kidnapping that was accomplished with a deadly weapon or something that the victim would believe is a deadly weapon, or if the suspect held the victim for a reward.

Those found guilty of especially aggravated kidnapping may face a maximum fine of $50,000 and 15 to 60 years in prison.

Abston was released from prison in November 2020 after serving time for Durand's kidnapping, though The Commercial Appeal reported that he was initially sentenced to 24 years in prison.

"This atrocious crime would have never happened and Eliza Fletcher would not have become a victim if Tennessee had truth in sentencing in 2000," Sexton told Newsweek in an email.

McNally echoed the sentiments, and in an emailed statement to Newsweek, said the crime was "as heinous as it was preventable."

"He had done this type of thing before and now he has done it again—and worse," McNally said. "It is simply disgraceful that this individual did not serve his full sentence for his previous crimes. If he had, Eliza Fletcher would be alive today."

Fletcher was out jogging in the early hours of Friday when she was shoved into a car, as seen in security footage. She was reported missing at about 7:45 a.m. by her husband when she did not return home.

Police said they identified Abston as a suspect by matching DNA evidence from sandals found near the scene.

"This case and others like it also demonstrate how far society has gone to protect violent criminals instead of victims," Sexton said. "We are more worried about their feelings than we are for victims and their families. Additionally, soft-on-crime initiatives create more victims every day by pacifying criminals and by not holding them accountable. Rehabilitation programs don't work on evil."

McNally said while the newly-passed law was necessary, it was "long overdue."

"Not only must evildoers pay the full price for their crimes, that punishment must serve as a warning that these actions simply will not be tolerated in our society," he said.

Abston is being held at the Shelby County Jail, but Fletcher had not yet been found at the original time of publication. On Tuesday, police announced the body they found Monday night was identified as Eliza Fletcher.

Newsweek reached out to the Tennessee Department of Corrections for further comment.

UPDATED 9/6/2022, 1:55 p.m. ET: This story has been updated with new comments from McNally and information on the case.