Steve Mulroy, the newly elected progressive district attorney of Shelby County, Tennessee, which includes Memphis, confronts two horrific crimes in his first month in office: the abduction and murder of a schoolteacher out for an early morning jog and a livestreamed shooting rampage that left multiple people dead. Both crimes were committed by felons released early from jail. Mulroy’s resolve in dealing with these criminals will test his progressive credentials.
Mulroy was elected on August 4 as the Shelby County district attorney general, having previously worked as a law school professor and civil rights attorney. He ran as an unabashed progressive, saying that his priorities would be to diversify the office, create a conviction review unit, and loosen bail policies. The ACLU hailed Mulroy’s election as a victory for “bail reform, police accountability, and criminal justice reform.” Mulroy formally took office on September 1.
Almost immediately, all hell broke loose in Memphis. On September 2, 34-year-old schoolteacher Eliza Fletcher went out for a jog near the University of Memphis. She never returned home to her husband and two young children; her body was found a few days later. Police have charged Cleotha Abston with kidnapping and murdering Fletcher, with part of the crime captured on video. In 2000, Abston was sentenced to 24 years’ imprisonment for aggravated kidnapping, but he was released early under state rules governing time served. Abston now also faces charges for the kidnapping and sexual assault of another woman in 2021, based on a DNA match.
Fletcher’s murder sparked outrage. “Liza’s Run” memorials sprung up across the country, with women racing to finish the run that Fletcher’s killer cut short. Women are stressing that they should be free to exercise safely in public, without fear of being abducted and killed by a previously convicted felon. These unimpeachable claims were apparently too much for the New York Times, where an opinion writer declared that Fletcher’s killing was “not a morality play” and noted that Fletcher was white and Abston is black, suggesting that their races explained the alleged interest of “far-right conservatives” in the case.
The Fletcher murder is not the only violent crime that Mulroy must address. On September 7, a man named Ezekiel Kelly went on a shooting rampage around Memphis. Over the course of the day, Kelly randomly shot numerous men and women, killing three and wounding four, before police captured him. Kelly livestreamed some of the violence on social media, and he was photographed with a broad grin after he was arrested for the murders. In 2021, Kelly had been convicted of aggravated assault and sentenced to three years’ incarceration; like Abston, he was released early.
How Mulroy responds to these cases will send a signal to the criminals and citizens of Shelby County. Cleotha Abston and Ezekiel Kelly are both eligible for the death penalty under Tennessee law, based on such aggravating factors as their prior records and their commission of mass murder and torture. For a traditional chief prosecutor, Abston and Kelly’s crimes would warrant a simple “life or death” option: charge the defendants with capital murder but consider allowing them to plead guilty to a life sentence without possibility of parole in order to save the families the pain of going through a trial. The problem for Mulroy is that his progressive colleagues oppose the death penalty under any circumstances, and some liberal attorneys now advocate releasing any criminal who has served at least ten years in prison. Further complicating matters for Mulroy is that both Abston and Kelly are black—which shouldn’t matter to a principled official but may affect the decisions made by progressive prosecutors who deem themselves “anti-racist.”
The ball is in Mulroy’s court. It is not his fault that these homicides took place during his first few weeks on the job. It is, however, his responsibility to deal with the murderers and to deliver justice for the victims’ families. Will he do it?
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