Gov. Lee: Memphis has seen ‘face of evil’

Published: Sep. 9, 2022 at 8:18 AM CDT|Updated: Sep. 9, 2022 at 11:10 AM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Tennessee needs to be tough but smart on crime: That’s the message from Governor Bill Lee, who made a stop in Memphis on Friday after a week of horrific violence.

He immediately addressed the deadly shooting spree that shut the city down Wednesday.

“Innocent lives have been taken and these criminals will be held accountable and justice will and should be swift and severe,” said Lee.

Governor Lee says he’s put policy in place to hold those criminals accountable, but there’s more to be done. First, he says work needs to be done to get rid of what he called ‘soft’ plea deals. He referenced Ezekiel Kelly’s plea deal from 2021 that allowed Kelly who was charged with attempted first-degree murder to plea to the lesser aggravated assault charge. He was sentenced to three years in prison and served 11 months.

Wednesday morning, the 19-year-old Kelly went on a shooting spree across the Mid-South, leaving three people dead and four others injured, police say.

A week ago, a teacher and mother of two was abducted while jogging near the University of Memphis. Her body was later found and identified as 34-year-old Eliza Fletcher.

“The people of Memphis have seen the face of evil,” Lee said.

Lee says proven crime prevention has to be present in Tennessee.

“This is exactly why law enforcement has to be supported,” said Lee. “This is why we have committed to hire 100 additional highway patrol troopers. Twenty of those will be committed to Memphis.”

He touts that stiffening penalties for violent offenders is a step in reducing crime.

Following the crimes, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland has touted the new truth in sentencing law which mandates certain offenders to serve 100 percent of their prison sentence. Strickland said if it had been in place years ago those who committed these two crimes may have not been out of prison to commit them.

Governor Lee did not sign that truth in sentencing law earlier this year.

“Regardless of sentencing almost everybody is going to get out,” Lee said. “The way we work to rehabilitate them before they get out has a significant impact on whether or not they will repeat crime.”

Lee said policy needs to stop crime before it happens, but there are debates on what investment will do that. Lee maintains investment in policing will deter crime from happening.

“One of the most important things is we focus today is proven crime preventions and that’s more cops on the streets, that is more funding for more police departments,” Lee said.

Lee has allocated $100 million to the states violent crime intervention grant fund. It’s money given to law enforcement for recruiting and other strategies.

Criminal justice advocates say more policing is not a proven crime prevention method. Groups like Just City in Memphis say crime prevention includes addressing issues like the lack of job opportunities and systemic generational poverty in the community.

Both suspects charged in the cases above, Cleotha Henderson and Ezekiel Kelly, have extensive juvenile records.

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