Tennessee funneling resources to eradicate rape kit backlog

Published: Sep. 29, 2022 at 10:52 PM EDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - In response to nationwide criticism about major delays in rape kit testing, the state is spending millions of dollars to staff up Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) forensic labs, and the federal government is sending aid, too.

Tennessee’s three state forensic labs are taking anywhere from 28 weeks to 49 weeks to process rape kits, and a backlog of more than 900 rape kits awaits testing.

The TBI had asked state leaders for more money to hire more people, but that request went unanswered until a horrific tragedy in Memphis made national news.

The time, attention and money now being put into the TBI’s rape kit testing is long overdue, says Deborah Clubb with the Memphis Area Women’s Council, an advocacy group for rape survivors.

”It’s the right move,” Clubb told Action News 5, “It should have been done years ago. We need it. And now let’s make sure it gets done.”

On Thursday, Governor Bill Lee announced state funding for 25 new TBI lab workers: eight in Jackson, which handles Memphis’ testing needs, 11 in Nashville and six in Knoxville.

“When TBI processes are working effectively and efficiently,” Lee said, “the crime will be reduced.”

To immediately speed up testing, the TBI will:

  • Provide overtime to current employees
  • Expand operations to weekends
  • Outsource eligible kits to private labs
  • Contract with retired TBI agents to help train new employees faster

Also Thursday, U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen announced a $2.9 million federal grant to address the backlog of rape kits in Tennessee.

”For some crime victims,” Cohen said, “this funding comes too late, but it is essential to perform timely DNA sample testing if justice is to be done.”

The push for faster testing comes after the high-profile murder of Memphis school teacher Eliza Fletcher.

The man charged in her killing, Cleo Abston Henderson, is also charged with raping a young mother, Alicia Franklin.

Her rape kit sat on a shelf, untested for nearly a year after her attack. Henderson wasn’t charged with her rape until after Fletcher’s abduction.

Franklin’s now suing the City of Memphis, her attorney insisting if Franklin’s rape case had been handled expeditiously last year when it occurred, Eliza Fletcher would still be alive.

”He (Cleotha Abston Henderson) would be in custody. He wouldn’t be on the streets of Memphis at 4:20 a.m. on September 2,” said attorney Jeff Rosenblum, “it’s definite Eliza Fletcher would not be dead.”

For Deborah Clubb, who went to work in 2014 with the Memphis Sexual Assault Task Force formed by Mayor A C Wharton, after a backlog of more than 12,000 rape kits was found in Memphis police storage, speeding up TBI rape kit testing is the final hurdle to helping sexual assault victims in Tennessee.

”Let’s get them all done. Let’s get everything back to zero and strengthen TBI,” Clubb said, “so that this does not continue to happen, these builds ups of untested evidence.”

TBI Director David Rausch said with all of these new steps, within the next year, the agency should be closer to reaching its goal of testing all evidence within eight to 12 weeks.

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