MEMPHIS, Tenn. — One local legislator wants to change the state law after seeing what WREG Investigators uncovered about a woman who was brutally attacked, but unable to get justice because her evidence wasn’t tested in time.
WREG doesn’t typically identify rape victims, but this woman wanted you to see her face. For her protection, we’re only calling her by her first name, Leila.
Leila was living in Memphis in 1993 when she woke up to a knife at her throat. She was blindfolded. She never saw the man who raped her.
Leila first told her traumatic story to WREG last month.
“You’re dying. I was thinking of any way I could get out of that situation. The only way to do it was to comply. I made a good choice because I’m sitting here with you,” she said.
Leila was left her on the cold floor. She called Memphis police and agreed to a sexual assault examination.
However, it wasn’t until 2015 when she learned what WREG first uncovered — her rape kit was one of thousands stuffed into storage closets and never tested.
“It’s so damn infuriating. I feel like my head could explode,” she said.
In 2018, 25 years after the attack, she found out her evidence was finally processed, and police told her they found DNA matching Marvin Hugghis. He was already serving a 32-year sentence for four aggravated rapes and sexual battery. One of the victims was 11 years old.
Through a source in the criminal justice system and documents obtained through the Public Records Act, we found out MPD also matched Hugghis to DNA in three more rape kits belonging to two women and a teenager around the time of Leila’s attack.
Like Leila’s rape kit, they were also caught in the backlog and never tested.
Hugghis completed his sentence last month and currently walking free.
Tennessee Rep. John Gillespie (R-Memphis) called it “tragic.”
“It’s happened so many times before,” he said. ” If we have that evidence, we should be able to use it in all situations regardless of when the time it’s tested.”
That’s what Leila thought too, but under Tennessee law, there’s a limited window of time to charge a suspected rapist.
For Leila and the others mentioned, it was 15 years. No one will stand trial in criminal court for their attacks.
“In January, I plan on filing legislation that removes the statute of limitations for rape and aggravated rape involving DNA evidence that has been collected,” Gillespie said.
Meaning, if there’s conclusive DNA, charges can be filed no matter what.
In July 2014, Tennessee enacted a law that eliminates the statute of limitations if the rape is reported within three years. Gillespie told us he’s aware of that law, but this would be another safeguard.
He says unfortunately, it won’t apply to Leila’s case due to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that new laws can’t be applied retroactively.
“If this is passed, then I would assume July 1 of next year all offenses committed after that, this would apply to,” Gillespie said.
Memphis Councilman Chase Carlisle said he’s also lobbying for change.
“If we can find a genetic match that ties someone to a case, that’s not extenuating circumstances. If we have hard evidence that links you to a murder or links you to a sexual assault, statute of limitations shouldn’t get away of that,” he said. “The hope and pray is not going to work.”
He said he will also request for more updates from MPD on how they handle cases to see if they have enough resources and investigators and to make sure victims are getting enough support.
“This was in the public’s eye when we had the backlog of cases in 2015, I think. We allowed that to leave the council’s agenda,” he said.
Carlisle said what’s been happening is unacceptable. He is also frustrated with another case that made our headlines.
Cleotha Abston Henderson reportedly raped Alicia Franklin in September 2021. She wants you to know her name too and know that her rape kit sat on a shelf until the following June.
Police say Abston Henderson went on to kidnap and kill Eliza Fletcher. The day forensic scientists matched his DNA to the rape kit, was the day they found Fletcher’s body.
“It really bothers me that people on the other side of the issue say police don’t prevent a crime. That’s not true. Right? If we had tested the DNA earlier in the rape with Cleotha Abston, more crimes and the crime against Eliza Fletcher wouldn’t have occurred,” he said.