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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis


How Nashville Built The Crime Lab That Memphis Couldn’t

Two Cities. Two Outcomes. In the wake of Eliza Fletcher’s murder, MPD’s systems for investigating violent crime come into question.

This building used to house the Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center at 2675 Union Avenue Extended, shot Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022, in Memphis, Tenn. (Photo By Karen Pulfer Focht/ The Institute For Public Service Reporting Memphis)

Nashville sweltered in near-record heat that morning last July as a 74-year-old woman completed yard work outside her home in the city’s prosperous Elmington Park area.

Inside, an intruder waited. He raped her there when she came in, fleeing 30 minutes later with a bandana shielding his face from neighborhood surveillance cameras.

With few initial leads, investigators called in forensic scientists with the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department. They quickly broke the case. Using DNA analysis, the city-employed scientists identified a transient laborer who was then charged with rape — a story Nashville officials now repeat with pride in promoting the city’s accredited, $30 million crime laboratory.

The Nashville Metropolitan Police Department built its own crime lab, opening a 47,000-square-foot facility on the second floor of the Madison Precinct Station. (Courtesy Metropolitan Nashville Police Department)

“We took a very dangerous man off our streets,” Metro Nashville Police Chief John Drake told reporters in a hastily called media briefing, the kind that makes police citywide heroes and wins mayors major accolades.

Memphis had a similar moment in September when police loomed as heroes after finding a suspect’s sandals at the scene where jogger Eliza Fletcher, 34, was abducted while on an early morning jog down Central Avenue.

Memphis is one of the few major cities without a full-service crime laboratory within its borders, so investigators sent the sandals to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation lab an hour away in Jackson, Tennessee, along with a request to expedite DNA testing. Eighteen hours later, the lab identified Cleotha Henderson, aka Abston, who was quickly arrested and charged with Fletcher’s abduction and murder.

Then, almost as quickly, the praise was tempered by problems.

The public learned the Memphis Police Department had investigated Henderson a year earlier for the rape of another woman, 21-year-old Alicia Franklin, but — despite seemingly strong evidence — had failed to arrest him.

Key to the case was Franklin’s rape kit, which MPD had also sent — this time without a request to expedite — to the distant TBI lab, where it sat on a shelf for nearly a year. When test results finally came back, matching Henderson, Fletcher had already been kidnapped and killed.

“They just don’t know what the hell they’re doing,’’ Susanna Parkinson said.

As a longtime victim’s advocate for the now-defunct Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center, Parkinson aims her criticism not so much at MPD as the systems that local officials put in place years ago that still impact how rape investigations are conducted.

One critical misstep, she believes, was the city’s failure a quarter-century ago to develop its own forensic laboratory, opting instead to rely on TBI, where staffing shortages recently have delayed DNA test results an average 33 to 49 weeks.

Way back in 1997, when DNA technology was still young, MPD laid plans to open its very own lab to analyze rape kits, the packets of evidence containing hairs and body fluids collected from victims following sexual assaults.

Blueprints were drawn. Equipment was purchased. A small staff was hired.

MPD seemed right on the cutting edge.

Police officials across the country say there’s extreme value in a department having its own lab. Though no panacea — some police labs have been plagued by contaminated DNA samples, crippling costs and other controversies — department-run labs aid investigations through close communication, supporters say.

A timeline of the history of DNA testing laboratories in Tennessee

Often housed in the same building, detectives and forensic scientists build close working relationships: They set priorities. They discuss leads. They work together to resolve false trails.

“When you have your own lab, if you’re lucky, you’ve got a really good working relationship,’’ said Joanne Archambault, a retired sex crimes detective who as a sergeant with the San Diego Police Department worked closely with that agency’s lab. “So, it’s a partnership.”

But the Memphis lab never opened. It was scrapped in favor of a state-run TBI lab.

Unlike Nashville, Memphis never could muster the will or the resources to open its own lab, even as TBI pulled its long-promised Memphis-based lab out of the city last year and moved it an hour away to Jackson.

“I don’t know whether it was a power play,’’ Parkinson said of the 1997 decision to not open an MPD-run lab. “But I always felt that there was (political) pressure.’’

Nashville crime lab built

If Alicia Franklin had been attacked in Nashville, her case might have had a far different outcome.

A top priority for the Metro Nashville Police Department is stranger rapes.

In an emergency — when an unknown assailant is on the loose — it can fast-track DNA or other forensic evidence in hours by tapping its own team of forensic scientists.

In 2014, the Nashville Metropolitan Police Department built its own crime lab, opening a 47,000-square-foot facility on the second floor of the Madison Precinct Station, a short drive from the Cumberland River. The full-service lab provides ballistics, toxicology and tool mark analysis along with DNA testing.

Front glass at the Metro Nashville Police Department Crime Laboratory, the only fully certified forensic lab in the state outside the TBI’s three-lab network in Knoxville, Nashville and Jackson that serve hundreds of law enforcement agencies across Tennessee’s 95 counties. (Courtesy Metropolitan Nashville Police Department)

With 61 employees — a mix of forensic scientists and technicians — it’s the only fully certified full-service crime lab in the state outside the TBI’s three-lab network in Knoxville, Nashville and Jackson that serves hundreds of law enforcement agencies across Tennessee’s 95 counties.

No other police department in the state comes close to what Nashville has developed.

“The overriding benefit is you get to prioritize your own cases. You’re not in the mix with every other law enforcement agency, police department, sheriff’s office across the state,” Don Aaron, MNPD public information officer said in an interview, extolling the virtues of the decision the department made eight years ago to open its own crime lab.

As an example, Nashville police point to the lab’s response last summer to the rape of the 74-year-old woman.

The victim gave police an accurate description, allowing them to quickly identify and charge Phillip Hayes, 46, who was observed hours later rummaging around the neighborhood. Charged with possession of methamphetamines and evading arrest, Hayes at first refused to give a DNA sample. But when he relented, MNDP forensic scientists quickly got a hit.

Hayes was charged with rape just days after the attack.

Such work comes with a cost: The lab spends about $8 million a year, including salaries and benefits.

“How do you quantify being able to identify a very dangerous person who poses a real and significant risk to families in our city?’’ Aaron asked. “With that said, yes, being able to prioritize our own cases and get a quick turnaround in emergency cases is worth the investment.”

MNPD has its own crime lab for a primary reason: Ronal Serpas, the man who was chief of police in Nashville from 2004-2010 was determined not to imperil citizens by having cases wait in line for DNA testing.

Ronal Serpas

Serpas came to Nashville straight from leading the Washington State Patrol, which on top of aviation assets and hundreds of officers, also had three fully certified crime labs. Before that, as second in command of police in New Orleans, Serpas built that department’s first crime lab. When he left in 2001, it was nearly ready to open.

“If we had a case that requires ballistics analysis, drug crime analysis, or most importantly, DNA analysis, we want to be able to determine the pace and flow of those cases,” said Serpas, who retired after 34 years in law enforcement. He is now a criminal justice professor at Loyola University New Orleans.

If he were leading a police agency today, he’d insist on it having its own crime lab or, in the worst-case scenario, a contract with the state crime lab for forensic scientists dedicated solely to the department’s work.

“You don’t want to be standing in line or expediting something and then having paperwork lost or something so that the case didn’t get expedited,” he said.

The Memphis lab that never opened

Few people remember now, but the Memphis Police Department planned years ago to open its own small, rape kit testing lab at the Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center. 

Brenda Cassinello Canady

Brenda Cassinello Canady still keeps the blueprint drawings.

Carefully, the woman who managed MSARC from 1997 to 2002 unfolds the 18-by-24-inch sheet of draftsman’s paper, revealing what in 1997 was a bold vision to aid rape victims and improve police investigations of sexual assault in Memphis.

The City of Memphis had just signed a lease allowing MSARC to move into new office space at 2675 Union Avenue Extended. There, a $57,000 renovation created an examination room, victim advocate offices and — in the southeast corner — a forensic laboratory.

At the time, MSARC was at a crossroads.

Opened in 1975, MSARC was an innovative arm of city government that served as the city’s rape crisis center. It provided counseling and support as well as physical examinations in which rape kit evidence was collected from the bodies of sexual assault victims to aid police investigations. By the 1990s, reports of sexual assault were so common, critics branded Memphis the “rape capital’’ of America.

DNA technology, first developed a decade earlier, offered new hope in holding perpetrators responsible. The MPD lab at MSARC originally was envisioned for serology only — initial testing to screen for blood types and to determine if there is enough biological material to conduct full DNA testing. )Authorities hoped the lab would replace serology testing that previously had been provided by the Regional Forensics Center and the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center.)

Eventual full-scale DNA analysis was a possibility.

Yet, even before it started, the lab was halted.

“If it had stayed on the trajectory that it should have or it could have, this this would have been a profound enhancement of the existing crime scene division,’’ Canady said.

How that trajectory was altered isn’t entirely clear to this day.

Surviving records indicate MPD brass nixed the lab following discussions with TBI.

“MPD was preparing to open its own forensic lab when TBI advised that they were about to open a branch forensic lab in Memphis to serve West Tennessee,’’ then-MPD Deputy Director Jim Harvey wrote in January 2014. “The MPD forensic lab project was abandoned upon hearing this news.”

Harvey offered the explanation in a 14-page internal memo that served as MPD’s official accounting of its decades-long struggle to properly store, inventory and test rape kits. The memo came months after MPD stirred a storm of controversy when it announced it had found more than 12,000 kits scattered in evidence rooms and various nooks and crannies across the city — one of the largest rape kit backlogs in the country.

Ironically, MPD’s decision nearly two decades earlier to defer testing to TBI would place the never-opened lab at the vortex of that storm.

The freezer in Hyun Kim’s office circa 2010 when officials began finding 12,000 rape kits scattered across the city. The freezer contained a range of rape kits, products of conception and other evidence. (Memphis Police Department) 

At Canady’s urging, MPD agreed in 1997 to hire a criminalist to oversee development of the laboratory housed at MSARC. As Canady recalls it, she even transferred money from MSARC’s budget to MPD to allow police to hire criminalist Hyun Kim, a chemist trained in police investigative procedure.

But when the lab shut down, Kim’s job morphed from supervising forensic testing to shuttling kits to MPD investigators or to the TBI lab.

“So, when we got shut down, MPD just basically used him as an errand boy,’’ said Parkinson, the MSARC victim’s advocate.

When Kim died unexpectedly of an aneurism in 2010, officers made a grim discovery: Thousands of kits scattered in storage sites with no inventory. Many untested. Many never even tagged into evidence. MPD has never fully explained what happened.

No TBI lab in Memphis

What is clear is that MPD opted not to open its lab after TBI announced in July 1997 it was opening a DNA unit in Jackson.

But as Memphis police wrestled with rising violent crime, pressure built to bring a TBI lab to Memphis.

Four years later, in December 2001, it happened. TBI opened a $3 million, 18,000-square-foot crime lab near the Shelby County Correction Center where scientists began performing firearms, toxicology, fire debris and drug chemistry analysis as well as DNA testing.

At the time, officials promoted the development as win for both the state and Memphis.

“The big advantage is the forensic scientists will be here locally,’’ then-TBI regional crime lab supervisor Samera Zavaro told a reporter. Zavaro said TBI scientists often had packed for several days when they left the Nashville lab to testify in criminal cases in Memphis.

“Now, when they’re in court here they won’t be out of pocket for several days on end. It also gives the district attorney and local police a chance to know the personnel better so they have someone they can call to ask about a case.’’

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s now-closed West Tennessee crime lab in Memphis. TBI opened the lab here in 2001 but moved it to Jackson last year. (Marc Perrusquia/The Institute For Public Service Reporting) 

At first, the Memphis lab served just Shelby County and surrounding Tipton and Fayette counties. But in time, TBI expanded the lab’s responsibility to serve law enforcement in its entire 21-county West Tennessee region.

Then, last year, TBI closed the Memphis lab and moved its entire West Tennessee operations into a new $25 million facility in Jackson.

“One of the reasons it moved to Jackson was because it’s a central location to all the counties in West Tennessee,’’ said state Sen. Ed Jackson, a Republican representing the City of Jackson and several surrounding rural counties.

“You can be anywhere in West Tennessee from Jackson in an hour or less. So, if police were needing to give evidence, it was taking some of them hours. So, it was a time saver and a money saver for the local law enforcement.”

Asked if Memphis was at a disadvantage without a crime lab in its borders, TBI released the following statement through spokesperson Keli McAlister:

“We are proud to serve all law enforcement agencies in the state of Tennessee. We work diligently to fulfill our duties in the criminal justice process. For anything further, MPD might be better able to provide answers.”

MPD did not respond to a list of written questions. Asked if MPD does any crime lab analysis such as DNA testing, fingerprint analysis, firearms identification or fiber analysis if only on a small scale, Major Karen Rudolph said in a six-word email response, “MPD can analyze latent prints only.’’ A review of the city’s 2021 employee roster showed MPD employed five latent print examiners that year with salaries ranging from $42,966 to $55,833.

Former Nashville police chief Serpas suggested a short-term solution might be a contract arrangement with the TBI — like one he set up in New Orleans — in which the state dedicates a certain number of scientists to Memphis.

“It would give you several years to figure out what it is you ultimately want to be,” he said.

Jane Roberts
Contributing Author

Jane Roberts covers business and features for The Daily Memphian. She’s lived and reported in Memphis for more than two decades.

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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