The Killing of Eliza Fletcher Is a Tragedy, Not a Morality Play
NASHVILLE — On Sept. 2, when Eliza Fletcher hadn’t returned from her usual early morning run, her husband called the Memphis Police Department.Within hours, investigators had recovered surveillance video of the violent abduction of Ms. Fletcher near the University of Memphis. A day after that, the police arrested Cleotha Abston (who also goes by Cleotha Henderson), a man who, investigators say, drove an S.U.V. that matched the model and the distinctive taillight damage on the vehicle in the video. Mr. Abston’s DNA matched DNA found on sandals left near where Ms. Fletcher was abducted; he is seen wearing the same kind of sandals in a surveillance video recorded at a local theater the day before she disappeared. According to investigators, cellphone data confirmed that his phone was in the area around the time the abduction took place.On Monday, Sept. 5, investigators found a body in the tall grass behind a vacant duplex near the home of Mr. Abston’s brother, where a witness told investigators she saw Mr. Abston cleaning the interior of the vehicle. (His brother is not believed to be connected to the crime.) The next day, the police confirmed that the remains were Ms. Fletcher’s.These are the horrific facts of a case that has roiled Memphis — and social media — for more than a week.Here are some more facts about Ms. Fletcher: She was a wife, the mother of two young sons, a granddaughter of a wealthy businessman, a kindergarten teacher at St. Mary’s Episcopal School. Last year the school’s Facebook page called her a teacher who “knows each student individually and does whatever she can to excite them for learning.”Ms. Fletcher was also white.Here are some more facts about Mr. Abston: His criminal record began in 1995, when he was 11 years old, and grew every year for the next five years. At 14, he was charged with rape. At 16, he kidnapped a Memphis attorney, who managed to escape. For that crime, Mr. Abston served roughly 20 years of a 24-year sentence. Less than a week after Ms. Fletcher’s killing, Mr. Abston was charged with an unrelated kidnapping and rape that took place in 2021.Mr. Abston is also Black.I’m noting these details — more details than you really need to know — because so many far-right conservatives believe that the mainstream media won’t report on violent crimes against white people by Black people. “Say her name,” they tweet, as though there could possibly be an analogy between Ms. Fletcher’s death, allegedly at the hands of a man whom the Shelby County district attorney has characterized as a lone killer, and Breonna Taylor’s killing at the hands of the Louisville Metro Police Department.“Say her name,” they tweet, as though Black women aren’t raped and killed every single day without making national news. The delay in charging Mr. Abston for last year’s kidnapping and rape stems, in part, “from a massive backlog in DNA testing” of rape kits, writes Marc Perrusquia in the Daily Memphian. “The overwhelming majority of those rape victims were Black women.” According to The Commercial Appeal, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation processed the DNA involved in Ms. Fletcher’s killing in a matter of hours because of a rush request by the Memphis Police Department. No rush request was made in the rape case from last year.Any cursory glance at the history of human predators will make it clear that there is no race requirement for killers, but race isn’t the only detail endlessly discussed in the public discourse about this case. There’s also the crime rate in Memphis, the way the media covers crime and the time of day when Ms. Fletcher habitually got in her run.I’m not saying these aren’t worthy subjects for public consideration. Memphis, like many cities, has a problem with violent crime. Five days after Ms. Fletcher’s abduction, another Memphis man went on a shooting rampage, killing four people and wounding three more, at least part of which he livestreamed on Facebook. But the reaction online to that crime has been far more muted — maybe because mass shootings are ubiquitous now or because it takes the abduction of a beloved kindergarten teacher to catch people’s attention. Or maybe it’s just that people outside Tennessee don’t care all that much about Memphis in the end. (For the record, violent crime there for the first six months of this year was down 6.1 percent from the same period in 2021.)There are complicated reasons for the violence in any American city, but none of them have anything to do with the moral character of the vast majority of the people who live there. Certainly they have nothing to do with the race of the people who live there. When conservatives in the national media wax nostalgic for a time before the civil rights era, a time when they say it was safer to live in a big city like Memphis, it’s worth remembering that the entire Delta region has a long, terrible history of violence. For decades, a kidnapping that ended in murder was called a lynching.We need to work continually toward making our cities less dangerous and our criminal justice system more just. We need news coverage of everything — not just crime — to be completely accurate and completely fair, particularly on a subject as sensitive as race. God knows we need to find a way to make it safer for all women to move through the world at any time of day.Any discussion of such subjects is bound to become heated, and that’s as it should be. Open public discourse is a privilege of living in a democracy. But while this kind of conversation is appropriate in a discussion of public policy, it is not at all appropriate in the discussion of an innocent person who lost her life to a seemingly random act of violence. Tragedies will always garner public interest. That’s just human nature. But tragedies should never be reduced to tweets and talking points or turned into a narrative to justify a political agenda.Perhaps this, too, is only human nature. Maybe we turn these terrible stories into allegories, distant symbols of something that doesn’t really touch us, because we find them so dislocating. It is easier to say, “She should have known better than to run in the dark” — or “She’d be alive today if only liberals weren’t soft on crime” or “This is why everyone should carry a gun” or “We need to take our cities back by lethal force” or any other tired trope of our weary age — than it is to face the much more frightening truth that nothing we do will ever absolutely guarantee our safety. Evil exists. Random things happen. Terrible, unbearable, irrevocable things happen, and sometimes we have no possible way to avoid them.Ms. Fletcher leaves behind a grieving community and two young children who will grow up without their mother. She didn’t live and die to illustrate any point. She was not the representative of any cultural ideology or the emblem of any political stance. By all accounts, she was a person who loved her family, loved her church and loved her work, a dedicated athlete who found a bit of time for herself in the midst of a full life by getting up early for a run. Surely that’s more than enough for any beloved, irreplaceable life to mean.Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. 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