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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis

Criminal Justice and Policing

City Lawyers Move to Exclude Detective’s Testimony

Emotions flare in second day of rape kit lawsuit hearings

Cody Wilkerson is in the eye of the hurricane.

The retired Memphis Police Department sex crimes detective contends incompetence and indifference led his former colleagues to close hundreds — possibly thousands — of rape cases without proper investigation.

Attorneys representing a group of rape victims are relying on Wilkerson’s testimony as they continue pursuing a now eight-year-old lawsuit accusing MPD of negligence in the handling of thousands of sexual assault cases over the course of decades.

But attorneys for the City of Memphis told a judge on Friday, October 21, that Wilkerson’s testimony should be excluded.

“His testimony is irrelevant,’’ attorney Robert Meyers said in arguing that Wilkerson’s testimony fails to meet several technical legal grounds.

Meyers’ arguments before Shelby County Circuit Court Judge Gina Higgins came in the second of two days of hearings expected to push the long-running dispute toward a possible conclusion by year’s end.

Higgins indicated from the bench that she may rule within two weeks on a variety of motions, including one by the city for summary judgment.

Passions ran high again Friday inside and outside the courtroom, where a group of rape survivors publicly weighed in on the suit in a courtroom hallway.

Rape survivor Debby Dalhoff speaks with reporters outside Judge Gina Higgins’ courtroom. (Marc Perrusquia)

“They didn’t do anything on my case. Not one thing,’’ said Debby Dalhoff, 67, who was raped in a still-unsolved 1985 home invasion before learning years later that MPD had destroyed evidence in her case without informing her.

Dalhoff told a circle of news reporters she believes troubles at MPD persist.

She pointed to the murder last month of jogger Eliza Fletcher, who was allegedly abducted by a man recently accused of raping another woman a year earlier. A lawsuit connected to that case accuses MPD of negligence for not arresting Cleotha Henderson aka Abston last year despite DNA evidence pointing to him as the perpetrator in the Sept. 21, 2021 rape of Alicia Franklin.

Though MPD submitted the rape kit in that case to the state crime lab within days of Franklin’s attack, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said MPD failed to ask for expedited DNA testing. The kit sat on a shelf for nearly a year before testing was finally completed days after Fletcher disappeared.

“Had they properly — properly — tested a rape kit from her perpetrator that happened a year earlier, Eliza Fletcher would be alive today,’’ Dalhoff said.

“It’s still continuing. It has not stopped.”

One dispute before Judge Higgins involves the plaintiff’s motion to certify a class of claimants to make the suit a class-action suit on behalf of thousands of victims. Currently, the suit has a single anonymous plaintiff, Janet Doe, who was raped in 1997.

Retired MPD sex crimes detective Cody Wilkerson, seen here in a 2020 file photo, testified about observing the mishandling of thousands of rape cases. (Karen Pulfer Focht)

Meyers, the attorney for the city, contends retired Lt. Wilkerson’s testimony should be excluded, in part, because he has no direct knowledge of MPD’s rape investigation of the Doe case.

Gary K. Smith, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said the city essentially is saying: “Move on. There’s nothing to see here.’’

“As long as I’ve got breath I will give voice to these victims,’’ Smith told Judge Higgins.

“We’re not moving on.’’

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute.

Written By

Marc Perrusquia is the director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, where graduate students learn investigative and explanatory journalism skills working alongside professionals. He has won numerous state and national awards for government watchdog, social justice and political reporting.

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