This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com on Sept. 26, 2022, under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute.
A special legislative committee formed this month to study the prison “revolving door” in Tennessee may expand its focus to investigate the state’s rape kit backlog.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said he’s asked an ad hoc Senate-House committee formed days after Eliza Fletcher’s Sept. 2 disappearance to also examine DNA testing delays. A nearly year-long turn-around time in testing allowed the schoolteacher’s alleged killer to remain free after he was identified as a suspect in a 2021 rape for which he is now charged.
“We have to put enough money in to make sure the kits get done in a timely manner,’’ said McNally, R-Oak Ridge, who said the backlog at the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is extensive nonetheless because of decisions by local police to send a large number of kits for testing.
“Really, part of the problem is the volume that the TBI has taken on,’’ McNally said.
The special 11-member committee of the General Assembly is expected to hold hearings this fall, though a schedule has not yet been published.
One member of the committee, Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, said Monday, Sept. 26, that he hopes the committee can hear testimony from representatives of the Memphis Police Department and the TBI, which operates the state crime lab.
Parkinson said he would also like testimony from Alicia Franklin, 22, who sued the City of Memphis last week, accusing MPD of negligence in the investigation of her Sept. 21, 2021, rape.
A grand jury indicted 38-year-old Cleotha Henderson, aka Abston, for that rape on Sept. 8, 2022, six days after Fletcher disappeared while on an early morning run and three days after her body was found behind an abandoned home in South Memphis.
Henderson is also charged with Fletcher’s kidnapping and murder.
Police sent Franklin’s rape kit to the state crime lab days after the September 2021 rape but DNA testing wasn’t completed until Sept. 5, the day Fletcher’s body was found.
“Had that hit came back earlier, you know, she would still be alive,’’ Parkinson said.
TBI and MPD both released statements days after Henderson’s indictment for the 2021 rape, with MPD pointing to TBI’s long DNA testing backlog and the state agency emphasizing that Memphis police did not request expedited processing, which can speed results in major cases.
TBI also blamed a staffing shortage for the delay. The agency said the average turnaround time for testing on a rape kit through its West Tennessee crime lab in Jackson “ranged from approximately 33 weeks to 49 weeks’’ between last September and this August. The statewide backlog was up to 958 kits still awaiting testing as of last month.
The agency currently is hiring three additional scientists and a technician to work Forensic Biology cases in its Jackson Crime Laboratory.
In a statement Sept. 13, TBI said it had requested funding for 40 additional special agents and forensic scientists in the last legislative session but received funding for only half of those positions.
That decision followed a failed bill Parkinson sponsored in 2014 that would have required all kits to be tested within six months.
The special committee formed by McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton is called the Joint Ad Hoc Committee to Review the Adequacy of the Supervision, Investigation and Release of Criminal Defendants.
Its formation was prompted by news that Henderson was released early from a 24-year sentence for kidnapping. He pleaded guilty in 2001 to kidnapping Memphis attorney Kemper Durand in a robbery attempt. He was given credit for time served prior to his conviction and released in November 2020 after receiving good-behavior credits. Tennessee sentencing guidelines allow the release of many inmates after serving 85 percent of a sentence.
Tennessee’s new “truth in sentencing’’ law requires inmates convicted of certain violent offenses after July 1 to serve their full sentence.
In addition to Parkinson, House members of the joint ad hoc committee are:
Bud Hulsey, R-Kingsport; Clay Doggett, R-Pulaski; Andrew Farmer, R-Sevierville; William Lamberth, R-Portland; and Lowell Russell, R-Vonore.
Senators on the committee are:
Ed Jackson, R-Jackson; Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville; Todd Gardenshire, R-Franklin; Bill Powers, R-Clarksville; and Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville.
Jackson said the committee members are eyeing dates in mid-October and early November for meetings.
“If we need legislation, we want to have that ready to go when we head to session in January,” Jackson said. “We want to be sure that if TBI needs additional resources or forensic scientists, then we want to provide it for them. The backlog is unacceptable. The wait time for having these processed is definitely something that we will be talking about.”