MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Turnaround times for investigators examining rape evidence kits are improving in Tennessee, but the state still has more progress to make.
WREG Investigators have spent more than a decade uncovering problems with rape kit testing in Memphis, and a case one year ago was no different.
We found out a rape kit had sat on a shelf for months, allowing the suspect, Cleotha Abston Henderson, to reportedly abduct a Memphis mother, Eliza Fletcher, on her morning jog.
It happened on September 2, 2022. A massive search followed as forensic scientists 90 miles away at a state lab in Jackson, Tennessee were making a disturbing discovery.
On September 5th, they said that Henderson’s DNA matched the male DNA in a rape kit submitted in September 2021. Memphis Police didn’t request the evidence be expedited, so it sat on the shelf for nearly nine months before the lab could get to it.
In the months that followed, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation didn’t deny the concerning amount of time it took to process the rape kit or the long time it was taking to process other evidence submitted to their labs.
In fact, WREG Investigators reported on this very issue in 2019 when the TBI told us then that it needed more money and staff to process the amount of evidence they were receiving faster.
“The turnaround time we currently have for sexual assault kits in the Memphis lab is 35 weeks,” the Jackson lab supervisor Donna Nelson said. “I remember when we had a 12-week turnaround time.”
After Fletcher was killed, state and local lawmakers, yet again, promised, to step in.
“We put in additional money to hire 50 new scientists, so they could process these rape kits,” State Senator Brent Taylor (R-Shelby County) said.
The TBI said it’s hired most of those new positions. Training can take months to even two years for some roles. It added that retaining employees will also be a challenge as they compete with private labs’ salaries and benefits.
During the same time, the TBI secured a federal grant to fly more than 850 sexual assault kits to a private lab in Florida to help with the analysis. The last batch was sent in July.
The lab charged $2,100 per kit, which covers any related courtroom testimony cost. We asked the TBI’s assistant director of forensic services how long they planned to outsource.
“This hopefully will be the last time we do outsourcing. We don’t know. We have exhausted all the funding we currently have,” Mike Lyttle said.
What he does know is that turnaround times have drastically decreased. The TBI reports at its peak in July 2022, the average turnaround time to process a sexual assault kit was almost a year at the Jackson lab where Memphis and Shelby County send their evidence. As of May, the turnaround time has been cut in half to an average of 26 weeks.
“I welcome that. I commend them for that. We still have a ways to go, but we are making progress,” Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy said.
He is still pushing for the TBI to bring a lab back to Memphis.
“Unfortunately, sadly, we have the biggest need, and it makes sense for us to have that facility here,” he added.
The TBI said it closed the Memphis lab because it outgrew the space and chose to build a new lab in Jackson because it’s central to the region. It claims just one-third of the evidence the lab receives is from Memphis.
In 2015, Metro Nashville Police received accreditation for its $30 million crime lab, so they could process their own evidence instead of waiting in line at a TBI lab. We requested an interview to see how it works, but have yet to hear back.
Memphis Councilman JB Smiley said the council approved a feasibility study to see if a crime lab like Nashville’s would work in Memphis.
“Do we have the people in the place that can actually go into the crime lab and get things done?” he said. “The question will also be if we can staff it and staff it efficiently and actually have a faster turnaround than we have right now.”
It’s another discussion at City Hall on rape kits. In 2010, WREG Investigators uncovered a backlog of 12,000 untested sexual assault kits sitting on shelves for decades. Since then, we’ve been committed to asking how this critical evidence is being handled.
Politicians also promised change back then, like updating the public as they worked to eliminate the backlog. While the city made it clear it’s since sent every kit to the lab for testing, it’s been a challenge to find out what happened afterward.
The city council stopped its regular updates in March 2020, despite the DA’s office saying their work was ramping up.
Through the Tennessee Open Records request, we asked for the same information the police used to provide to the council on September 14, 2022.
Almost a year later, MPD continues to tell us it’s “still retrieving, reviewing, and/or redacting the requested records.”
Fletcher was a mother of two, a kindergarten teacher, and a bright light in her community.
Henderson is now charged with murder and also the 2021 rape of Alicia Franklin who wanted her name out there and wanted it known how long it took to process her evidence.
She says she had consented to a sexual assault examination in hopes it would lead to her attacker’s arrest before he could strike again.