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Untested rape kits plagued Memphis long before the running back case

MEMPHIS, Tennessee. — Rape kit evidence testing problems continue to haunt Memphis.

A city long plagued by a large backlog of untested sexual assault kits has been rocked by the arrest of Cleotha Henderson for the murder of Eliza Fletcher after she was kidnapped during a morning jog last month.

So when authorities said his DNA was linked to a rape that occurred nearly a year earlier, charging him separately days after he was arrested for Fletcher’s murder, an outraged city turned to the obvious question: Why is he still was in the streets?

The case of Henderson, who has already served 20 years in prison for a kidnapping he committed at 16, has reignited criticism of Tennessee’s sexual assault testing process. That has included calls for shorter delays from the testing agency, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and questions about why Memphis didn’t seek to expedite a kit that could have been tested in days.

Instead, it took nearly a year to uncover key evidence too late to charge Henderson before Fletcher’s murder.

The tragic result brings back memories of the early 2010s, when Memphis revealed a backlog of around 12,000 untested rape kits that took years to whittle down and led to a lawsuit that is still ongoing. The new rape charges have prompted another lawsuit accusing the Memphis Police Department of negligence for the delay.

The scenario has also raised broader concerns about Tennessee’s struggles with an issue that has been in the national spotlight for decades and has been addressed by some states.

In response, the Republican Gov. Bill Lee and Republican legislative leaders have fast-tracked money for an additional 25 positions in the TBI lab, including six in DNA processing. The agency had requested 50 more this year, but Lee funded just 25 in his proposed budget, and lawmakers approved that number.

Meghan Ybos, a rape victim involved in the delay lawsuit, blames the city for failing to curb a known problem for years despite receiving more than $20 million in grants to address the delay.

“I don’t think Memphis’ law enforcement shortcomings are limited to handling rape kits,” Ybos said, “but I think the public should be outraged at the lack of transparency about what Memphis has done with dozens of of millions of grant money the city and county have received to test rape kits, train police, hire victim advocates, prosecute cold rape cases and more.”

As of August, Tennessee’s three state labs averaged 28 to 49 weeks to process rape kits under circumstances that do not include an order to expedite testing. More than 950 rape kits were left untested in laboratories.

TBI attributed the delays to staffing problems and low salaries that complicate the recruitment and retention of scientists.

TBI Director David Rausch laid out more measures in hopes of processing all evidence in eight to 12 weeks within the next year: overtime, weekend hours, more outsourcing to private labs and the use of TBI workers. retirees for training new workers to free up current employees.

Tennessee doesn’t require specific turnaround times for newly collected rape kits, though 19 other states do, according to the Joyful Heart Foundation, which is pushing Tennessee to do the same. Massachusetts requires kit processing within 30 days, but most states require testing within 60, 90, or 120 days.

Speakers in the Tennessee House and Senate have not singled out change mandates as a priority. Meanwhile, TBI said any change requirements would need adequate funding.

Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation, said Tennessee’s problems aren’t unique. Without an official US count of rape kits awaiting analysis, Knecht estimated that there are likely more than 200,000 unanalyzed kits in law enforcement or hospital storage nationwide.

“Each one of these kits that’s on a shelf could represent someone like the offender in this case, where you look at their criminal record and they’re committing all kinds of crimes, they’ve been doing it for decades, and the evidence that could stop them is out there. a shelf somewhere,” Knecht told The Associated Press.

Henderson was charged with first-degree murder in the kidnapping and murder of Fletcher, a mother of two and a kindergarten teacher who was jogging before dawn on Sept. 2 when she was forced into a pickup truck on the University campus. from Memphis. Her remains were found on September 5 behind a vacant Memphis home.

Henderson, who also went by Cleotha Abston, did not plead guilty to the murder but was jailed again on Sept. 9 on charges related to the September 2021 rape of a Memphis woman. Henderson has pleaded not guilty to charges that assault, including aggravated rape.

The new lawsuit filed by the woman who says she was raped in that attack says Memphis police could have prevented Fletcher’s death if they had investigated the 2021 rape more vigorously.

“Cleotha Abston should and could have been arrested and charged with aggravated rape of (the alleged victim) many months earlier, most likely in the year 2021,” the suit says. The AP is not naming the woman.

Rape kits contain samples of semen, saliva, or blood taken from a victim. Specimens containing DNA evidence are uploaded to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, to search for a match.

In Memphis, delays have long been a problem. Some 12,000 untested rape kits were revealed there in 2013. A task force was formed, and police began using the results to launch investigations and obtain some convictions.

The city has said the backlog revealed in 2013 has been removed. But long backlogs in the testing of rape kits persist in Tennessee, including the Memphis cases.

In Henderson’s case, Memphis police said a sexual assault report was taken on Sept. 21, 2021. A rape kit was sent to TBI two days later, the office said.

“An official CODIS hit was not received until after” Fletcher’s abduction, police said, and probable cause for an arrest “did not exist until after the CODIS hit was received.”

TBI said no request for expedited testing was made and no suspicious information was included in the filing.

The kit was eventually removed from evidence storage and an initial report was completed on August 29, the office said.

DNA from 2021 was a match to Henderson’s in the national database on Sept. 5, three days after Fletcher’s abduction, authorities said. TBI reported the match to Memphis police.

Under Tennessee law, law enforcement agencies generally have 30 days to send evidence from rape cases to TBI or another lab, but there is no mandate on processing times.

TBI said its budget request was conservative: $10.2 million for 40 scientists and 10 lower-level positions. A West Virginia University forensic calculator said TBI labs needed another 71 positions, the bureau said.

In DNA testing, the labs currently have six supervisors and 26 special agent/forensic scientist positions, some under contract or in extended training for new hires. TBI hopes to start with the 40 scientists, 14 in DNA, at the end of this month and others at the end of March.

Still, many have grown impatient in a situation they say requires urgency.

“These are our most vulnerable victims,” said Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City, a Memphis organization that pushes for a fairer criminal justice system. the norm that a rape kit test takes the many months it takes is really not acceptable.”

———

Mattise reports from Nashville, Tennessee.

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