Tennessee fast-tracks new forensic jobs amid rape kit delays

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and top legislative leaders announced Thursday that they will fast-track more money to hire 25 additional forensic lab positions to help speed up the processing of sexual assault kits

Kimberlee Kruesi,Jonathan Mattise
Thursday 29 September 2022 22:15 BST

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.

The news quickly sparked outrage among state leaders and victim advocates demanding that officials fix how the state processes sexual assault kits.

According to Lee, the 25 additional positions will include scientists, technicians and administrative support staff in labs based in Jackson, Nashville and Knoxville. 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 Speak 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 last budget, but Lee and the legislature funded half that amount. TBI also says low pay makes recruiting and keeping scientists difficult.

Officials did not immediately say how the new positions would be broken down. 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 not 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.


Staff writer Adrian Sainz in Memphis contributed.

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