MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The state crime lab asked for 40 personnel at its crime labs to help process crucial evidence faster, but only got funding for half of that.
For years, WREG Investigators have been reporting on issues at the state crime lab in Jackson, where Memphis Police sends its biological evidence to be analyzed including evidence collected from sexual assaults.
The TBI said it only has four forensic scientists to analyze it all. Last year, there were 600 submissions. That means unless police ask for it to be expedited, it can take eight months to a year to process a rape kit.
A woman called Memphis police in September 2021, saying she’d been raped. She agreed to a sexual assault forensic exam and police submitted her evidence to the state crime lab.
But it sat in storage for nine months until forensic scientists could finally get to it. Her attacker continued to walk free, allowing him to strike again.
It wasn’t until Sept. 5, nearly a year later, when forensic scientists say they entered the DNA from the 2021 rape into the system. They learned it matched the DNA of Cleotha Abston-Henderson who is accused of kidnapping and killing Eliza Fletcher on a morning jog just three days before.
Last budget cycle, the TBI begged for funding for 40 more personnel at their three crime labs. A spokesperson told us that was a “conservative” number based on their research.
They got funding for only 20 positions and only three were assigned to help analyze rape kits at the Jackson lab.
The TBI sent us a breakdown of its employees at each of its labs and the current processing times between Aug. 2021 and Aug. 2022 for Jackson, which processes biological evidence in Memphis, in comparison to Nashville and Knoxville.
Jackson (processes Memphis results):
When we asked why numbers at the Jackson lab were so high in July, the TBI said “There were no rush requests in Forensic Biology at the Jackson lab during the month of July. Thus, the cell populated with the same number as the monthly average.”
Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy said he’s keeping an eye on the issue.
“The time lag is unacceptably wrong. I know the TBI is doing its best,” Mulroy said. “I would like to talk to the state about providing more resources.”
The TBI said it plans to ask for resources yet again next year. They will request funding for 20 more positions to complete the balance of the original 40 positions that were requested. They plan to assign two more personnel to help analyze DNA evidence at the Jackson lab.
Meanwhile, the governor’s office told us they’ve “made the single largest investment into the TBI in the bureau’s history” along with an investment to “reduce the backlog” of untested rape kits.
The TBI said it started recruiting for the new positions in May. They plan on the new employees starting October 31. They will have to undergo training, so there’s no telling when the turnaround time will improve.