After a white woman died, Tennessee fast tracks money to process rape kits

Cleotha Henderson was eventually indicted in the case just days after he was arrested in the death of Eliza Fletcher, a mother of two and a kindergarten teacher.

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and top legislative leaders announced Thursday that they will fast-track more money to hire 25 additional forensic lab positions as the state’s turnaround times for sexual assault kits face scrutiny after a high-profile killing.

The news comes just weeks after authorities confirmed that the man charged with abducting and killing a Tennessee teacher had not been charged in the 2021 case of the rape of a woman due to the delay in processing the sexual assault kit.

Cleotha Henderson was eventually indicted in the case just days after he was arrested in the death of Eliza Fletcher, a mother of two and a kindergarten teacher. An autopsy report released Thursday showed Fletcher died from a gunshot wound to the head.

In the earlier case, Memphis police say they took a sexual assault report on Sept. 21, 2021 but it wasn’t analyzed in a state lab until nearly a year later. When the 2021 DNA was entered into the national database, it returned a match for Henderson on Sept. 5. Fletcher disappeared on Sept. 2.

Eliza Fletcher, a mother of two and a kindergarten teacher, died from a gunshot wound to the head, according to an autopsy report released Thursday, September 29. (Screenshot: YouTube – FOX 13 Memphis)

TBI said police in Memphis had made no request for expedited analysis of the kit and no suspect information was included in the submission.

The news quickly sparked outrage among state leaders and victim advocates demanding that officials fix how the state processes sexual assault kits. It also prompted questions about why Memphis didn’t seek to fast-track the kit, which can cut the wait to only days.

According to Lee, the 25 additional positions will include scientists, technicians and administrative support staff in labs based in Jackson, Nashville and Knoxville. Six of the positions will focus on DNA, while the rest will have other specialties, according to TBI spokesperson Josh DeVine.

Funding will come from the state’s current budget, and Lee said he’ll push to fund it again in next year’s budget, which Lee will propose and lawmakers will consider in early 2023.

“While there is absolutely more to do, I am pleased that we are able to take this additional step towards eliminating this backlog. We have to get these violent criminals off the streets and keep them off,” said Senate Speaker Randy McNally, a Republican.

As of August, Tennessee’s three state labs averaged from 28 to 49 weeks to process rape kits under circumstances that don’t include an order to rush the test, and more than 950 rape kit requests were pending in labs. TBI attributed the delays to staffing woes: the agency requested 40 more special agent/forensic scientist positions and 10 more technicians in the budget that is now in effect, but Lee and the legislature funded half that amount. TBI also says low pay makes recruiting and keeping scientists difficult.

DeVine said the funding announcement Thursday covers the remainder of the positions TBI had sought in the current budget. There are several different roles for forensic scientists at the agency other than DNA, ranging from toxicology to forensic chemistry. In the current budget, for example, the 20 new special agent/forensic scientist positions funded included eight forensic biology/DNA positions.

Legislative leaders indicated this was an initial step, and other moves would be needed to address the turnaround times.

TBI Director David Rausch said the agency has several other approaches in the works, as he aims to reduce turnaround times to eight to 12 weeks within a year for all evidence. Some efforts include: Offering overtime for lab workers; operating the labs on weekends; outsourcing eligible kits to private labs; and contracting with retired TBI workers to help provide training so current scientists can shift their time training employees to more case work.

The labs currently have 26 DNA-focused special agent/forensic scientist positions, including some being hired or trained. Supervisors — six focused on DNA — can conduct lab work too. Three DNA-tasked forensic technicians are in the hiring process.

Currently, the TBI says it accepts “rush DNA cases” when requested to do so by local law enforcement agencies. There is no timeline, however, on when a sexual assault kit must be received and analyzed.

Henderson, who also has gone by the name Cleotha Abston, is charged with kidnapping and killing Fletcher, 34. Henderson is being held in the Shelby County Jail without bond on the charges stemming from Fletcher’s death.

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