MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Crucial evidence is taking months to process and may be slowing down the judicial system and threatening public safety.
The state of Tennessee is managing to move the backlog incrementally, and taking steps to speed things up.
Back in September, Eliza Fletcher had gone for a run when police say she was kidnapped by Cleotha Abston-Henderson — the same man who Alicia Franklin says raped her in September 2021.
Franklin wanted her name out there and wanted it known she consented to a sexual assault kit, hoping it would help find her attacker. But the kit wasn’t processed for nearly 10 months.
State forensic scientists say the day they matched DNA found in Franklin’s kit to Abston’s Henderson’s was the day Fletcher’s body was found.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation doesn’t deny the concerning amount of time it took to process Franklin’s rape kit, or the long time its taking to process the other 2,400 pieces of evidence sent last year just to the lab in Jackson.
The evidence includes not only include rape kits but DNA in other violent crimes, firearms, latent prints, seized drugs and more.
The Jackson lab processes the evidence for the entire West Tennessee Region, including Memphis.
WREG Investigators talked to the TBI about this very issue back in 2019. They said they need more money and help. That need remains.
No one with the TBI agreed to an interview, but gave us their latest data.
As of December 2022 on average, it took scientists more than 48 weeks to process forensic biology for sexual offenses at the Jackson lab — 41 weeks for violent offenses, and 56 weeks for non-violent. Firearms analysis took the longest at 63 weeks.
That number is very high, said Mechthild Prinz, a forensic genetics professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“Untested evidence and waiting for evidence to be tested impacts everyone who is affected by a crime,” Prinz said.
That includes detectives. She says while waiting on the DNA evidence, they have to rely on other ways to build their case.
“They can look at cell phone data, they can look at cameras, maybe the latent print lab, yeah their turnaround time is a little bit better, so they could look at fingerprint evidence,” she said.
Sometimes that’s not enough.
Shelby County District Attorney Steven Mulroy said sometimes the wait can hamper their ability to investigate and prosecute cases.
“The DNA tests aren’t just relevant in the sexual assault cases. They can be relevant in other cases as well, including homicides,” Mulroy said.
Mulroy says he’s been pushing to get a lab back in Memphis after the TBI moved operations to Jackson to be more centrally located for the region.
“Not trying to take anything away from Jackson, but it seems like establishing a lab here in Memphis and maybe even using existing facilities and building out from there ought to be something we are seriously thinking about,” Mulroy said.
He says the quicker evidence is processed, the quicker an investigation moves, and the quicker they can get a conviction.
“If we are having to wait for close to a year for lab tests to come back, that’s going to thwart that effort,” he said.
Gov. Bill Lee recently signed off on 25 new forensic positions to divide among the three state labs.
TBI Director David Rausch said they’ve seen “small adjustments” in turnaround time. During recent budget discussions, the TBI director told the governor they need more.
“They are incremental at this point, ” Rausch said. “The challenge still exists, salary modernization is still going to impact this. We are still seeing the challenge of being able to hire people at the salary we offer.”
He said private companies, especially, offer more money, and new employees already dropped out because of the pay. Additinally, every new hire has to undergo 18 months of training.
“It may be years before we see that turnaround time brought down to more like three months, which I think is more manageable,” Mulroy said.
Local lawmakers have proposed bills requiring the TBI process rape kits within 30 days.
All the while, Franklin is suing the city. She contends if her evidence was processed sooner, her attacker wouldn’t have been able to commit more crime.