HomeTechnologyTennessee speeds up new forensic work amid rape kit delays

Tennessee speeds up new forensic work amid rape kit delays


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and top legislative leaders announced Thursday that they will accelerate more money to hire 25 additional forensic lab positions as state response times for sexual assault kits face scrutiny after high-profile event. murder.

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

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

In the case above, Memphis police say they received a sexual assault report on Sept. 21, 2021, but it wasn’t tested at 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 September 5. Fletcher disappeared on September 2.

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TBI said Memphis police had not requested an expedited analysis of the kit and no suspicious information was included in the filing.

The news quickly sparked outrage among state leaders and victim advocates who were demanding that officials correct how the state processes sexual assault kits. It also raised questions about why Memphis didn’t seek to fast-track the kit, which may reduce the wait to just a few days.

According to Lee, the additional 25 positions will include scientists, technicians and administrative support staff at laboratories located in Jackson, Nashville and Knoxville. The funding will come from the state’s current budget, and Lee said he will 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 be done, I am pleased that we are able to take this additional step to eliminate this backlog. We have to get these violent criminals off the streets and keep them away,” said Senate President Randy McNally, a Republican.

As of August, Tennessee’s three state labs averaged between 28 and 49 weeks to process rape kits under circumstances that do not include an order to expedite testing, and there were more than 950 requests for rape kits pending at the labs. TBI blamed the delays on staffing issues: The agency requested 40 more special agent/forensic scientist positions and 10 more technicians in the budget now in effect, but Lee and the legislature funded half that amount. TBI also says that low salaries make it difficult to recruit and retain scientists.

Officials did not immediately say how the new posts would be divided. There are several different roles for forensic scientists at the agency in addition to 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 that this was an initial step and that other moves would be needed to address response times.

TBI Director David Rausch said the agency has several other approaches in the works as it aims to cut turnaround times from eight to 12 weeks within a year for all tests. Some efforts include: Offering overtime for lab workers; operate the laboratories on weekends; subcontracting of eligible kits to private laboratories; and the hiring of retired TBI workers to help provide training so current scientists can shift their time from employee training to more case work.

The labs currently have 26 DNA-focused special agent/forensic scientist positions, including some being recruited or trained. The supervisors, six focused on DNA, can also carry out laboratory work. Three forensic technicians with DNA tasks are in the hiring process.

Currently, TBI says it accepts “urgent DNA cases” when requested by local law enforcement agencies. However, there is no timeline for when a sexual assault kit should be received and tested.

Henderson, who also goes by the name Cleotha Abston, is accused of kidnapping and killing 34-year-old Fletcher. Henderson is being held in the Shelby County Jail without bond on charges stemming from Fletcher’s death.

Staff writer Adrian Sainz in Memphis contributed.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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