(MEMPHIS, Tenn.) — An attorney for the suspect in the fatal kidnapping of jogger Eliza Fletcher objected in court Thursday to the local police chief describing the defendant as a “dangerous predator.”
Attorney Jennifer Case of the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office told Judge Louis J. Montesi Jr. that in her opinion the comment about her client made by Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis during a news conference was a “breach of the rules of ethics” and initially requested that a gag order be imposed against prosecutors and police.
During a news conference Tuesday announcing Fletcher’s body had been discovered, Davis said, “While the outcome of this investigation is not what we hoped for, we are nonetheless pleased to remove this dangerous predator off the streets of Memphis.”
Assistant Shelby County District Attorney Paul Hagerman told Montesi there was no grounds for a gag order on “literally day one” of the case and his office has an obligation to inform the public about court proceedings and factual evidence in the matter.
Montesi said is willing to sign an order cautioning attorneys to be careful about the public statements they make in the case and to discourage police from making comments that prosecutors cannot ethically make.
After hearing from the judge, Case said she was dropping her request for a gag order.
Possible conflict of interest resolved
Thursday marked the third consecutive day the suspect, 38-year-old Cleotha Abston Henderson, appeared in court.
Henderson was arraigned on Wednesday on charges of first-degree murder, premeditated murder and first-degree perpetration of kidnapping. On Tuesday, Henderson was arraigned on other charges connected to the slaying of Fletcher, a kindergarten teacher and married mother of two, including counts of especially aggravated kidnapping and tampering with evidence.
At the start of Thursday’s court hearing, Montesi resolved a motion made by Case, in which she alerted the court of a possible conflict of interest her office had in representing Henderson.
Montesi said in court that Case raised the issue that Henderson was represented by the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office in a previous kidnapping case in which he pleaded guilty to abducting a prominent Memphis attorney at gunpoint in 2000. Henderson served 20 years of a 24-year prison sentence.
In her motion, Case said that while in prison, Henderson filed a petition asking for a post-conviction release alleging he received ineffective representation from the public defender’s office.
Case, who was not part of Henderson’s previous defense team, said the public defender who represented Henderson during his 2001 guilty plea would not be involved in defending Henderson on the new kidnapping and murder charges.
Montesi said he reviewed documents from Henderson’s previous case and concluded, “I cannot make a finding that there is grounds for disqualification,” clearing the way for Case to represent Henderson going forward.
The judge set Henderson’s next court date for Sept. 19.
Henderson has yet to enter a plea to the charges stemming from Fletcher’s homicide.
The murder charges against Henderson were filed after police identified on Tuesday a body discovered at the rear of a vacant South Memphis duplex as Fletcher. The remains were found by police several miles from where Fletcher was abducted early Friday while she was out jogging.
New Memphis jogger details revealed
A new affidavit of complaint filed by investigators in the case, and made public Tuesday evening, details how police discovered Fletcher’s remains during a four-day search for her.
Members of several law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, were going door-to-door on Monday afternoon searching for Fletcher in a South Memphis residential neighborhood when officers noticed fresh tire tracks in an area with high grass adjacent to the driveway of a vacant residence, according to the affidavit.
“Officers panned out and walked to the rear of the location,” where they were drawn to a set of steps just north of the rear driveway, according to the affidavit. “Immediately to the right of the steps, (an officer) located an unresponsive female lying on the ground and notified his search team members.”
The remains matched the description of Fletcher, according to the affidavit.
Further forensic analysis confirmed the remains to be those of Fletcher, Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis said at a news conference Tuesday.
Meanwhile, other investigators near the location where the body was found discovered a discarded trash bag, according to the affidavit. The bag was found near the residence of Henderson’s brother, where witnesses told investigators the suspect was seen several hours after Friday’s kidnapping “acting very strangely” and allegedly cleaning the inside of a black GMC Terrain that surveillance video showed was used in the kidnapping, the affidavit said.
“The bag contained purple Lululemon running shorts that were consistent with the ones Eliza Fletcher was last seen wearing,” according to the affidavit.
An earlier affidavit filed in the case described surveillance video that captured the kidnapping as it was occurring.
“A male exited the black GMC Terrain, ran aggressively toward the victim, and then forced the victim Eliza Fletcher into the passenger’s side of the vehicle. During this abduction, there appeared to be a struggle,” the affidavit states.
Citing the video, investigators said the SUV sat in a parking lot with the victim inside for about four minutes before it drove off, according to the affidavit.
U.S. Marshals arrested Henderson on Saturday after learning that the registered owner of the GMC Terrain lived at the same residence as Henderson, according to the affidavit. As the U.S. Marshals Service moved in to make the arrests, Henderson allegedly tried to flee in the SUV but was quickly taken into custody.
During questioning, Henderson, who works at a dry cleaner, refused to tell investigators anything about Fletcher’s whereabouts, according to the affidavit. On Tuesday, Davis said, “We have not gotten very much information from that individual (Henderson).”
Finishing Fletcher’s run
Friends and strangers have been dropping off flowers and balloons at makeshift memorials at the location where police said Fletcher was kidnapped and at the vacant home where her body was found.
Danielle Heineman, an avid runner in Memphis, said she is organizing a 10-mile run on Friday at 4:30 a.m., around the same time Fletcher was abducted. Heineman is calling the event “Let’s Finish Liza’s Run.”
Heineman told ABC affiliate station WATN in Memphis that the response to her Facebook post announcing the run has been overwhelming. She said the initial plan was to begin the run near Fletcher’s home to where she was abducted and back.
“However, it blew up from my original Facebook post,” said Heineman, adding that she has now changed the run’s starting location out of respect for the Fletcher family’s request for privacy “so as not to have a crowd near her home.”
Memphis resident Chris Rudy, who is also a runner, stopped by the memorial at the site where Fletcher was kidnapped, telling WATN that she used to run in the area while she was a college student. She said she was “shaken” by the fatal kidnapping of Fletcher.
“I think I can speak for every woman in Memphis right now,” Rudy said, “it’s just gut-wrenching, heartbreaking and no one deserves this.”
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