MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WREG)– State forensic scientists linked Eliza Fletcher’s accused kidnapper and killer Cleotha Abston-Henderson to a rape that happened in September 2021. What’s even worse is critical evidence in that 2021 case had just been sitting in storage at a state lab for months.
The state made the unnerving discovery on September 5, the same day Fletcher’s body was found.
Memphis Police submitted the sexual assault kit last September but didn’t ask the TBI to expedite it, so the evidence got in line with the others. TBI told us the sexual assault kit was submitted to their office on September 23, 2021, two days after the alleged crime.
Finally in June, forensic scientists were able to pull it off the shelf and start analyzing it, 10 months after the sexual assault kit was collected. That allowed Abston-Henderson to walk free and be able to allegedly commit another crime.
The long wait is a problem one woman brought to our attention in February 2019. She’d been waiting months for her evidence to be analyzed so she could close a difficult chapter.
“I feel like they don’t care and they are brushing it off,” she said.
WREG investigators told you then the turnaround time for a rape kit was almost nine months. The TBI said it was swamped then with the rape kit backlog and new policies requiring every kit to get tested, and they needed more funding for personnel.
Last summer, the TBI told us it still needed more staff.
A spokesperson explained the Jackson lab has four forensic scientists assigned to analyze all biological evidence from rapes, homicides, robberies, and more. Last year, there were over 600 submissions.
Not to mention, the same four scientists have to respond to crime scenes from time to time and testify in court.
State Sen. London Lamar said lawmakers voted to give the TBI more funding. TBI said the funding will cover three more forensic scientists and a technician at the Jackson lab.
“I know they are trying. I voted for resources for them to have more personnel, more funding,” Lamar said. “We will be keeping eyes on this particular issue and ensuring we are doing everything we can to make sure it’s not taking 39 weeks.”
City leaders told us Monday they are also looking at what they can do.
“When it comes to areas like this, it should always be a sense of urgency when it comes to rape kits in my opinion,” said councilman Martavious Jones.
“I was floored my heart sank and certainly on Tuesday, I intended to ask CJ Davis who will be there, what is the process? Why are we here? I really don’t appreciate the TBI and the MPD pointing fingers at each other. There’s no time for that,” said councilman Chase Carlisle. “The public deserves to feel safe and that we’re doing our job and honestly I would tell Chief Davis, “fine, make an expedited request on every single kit then from going forward.”
Abston-Henderson was already in the system for kidnapping and robbery, which is why investigators said once that sexual assault kit was processed, they quickly got a match.
The governor’s office told WREG that the administration has invested about $42 million into the TBI, specifically to create new forensic services positions to reduce the backlog of untested sexual assault kits and expand the bureau’s operational capacity.
They also said Governor Bill Lee made the single largest investment into the TBI in the bureau’s history this fiscal year.
WREG Investigators also reached out to the TBI for a comment on this story but have not heard back.