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Rape Investigation Hampered by DNA Testing Backlog, Police Miscues

If MPD had arrested Cleotha Abston on rape charges last year, would he have been on the streets this month when Eliza Fletcher disappeared?

Cleotha Abston in court on Sept. 6, as he’s arraigned on charges of kidnapping and murdering Eliza Fletcher. (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)

The Tennessee state crime lab took 11 months to complete DNA testing on a rape kit linking Eliza Fletcher’s alleged killer to a 2021 rape, an analysis that, if completed sooner, could have resulted in an earlier arrest of Cleotha Abston.

Instead, Abston, 38, who is now charged with Fletcher’s kidnapping and murder, was free earlier this month when the teacher and mother of two small children was abducted in the early morning hours while jogging near the University of Memphis.

A grand jury indicted Abston for the September 2021 rape on Thursday, six days after Fletcher disappeared. Testing on the kit from the 2021 case was completed and finally matched to Abston on Monday, three days after Fletcher’s Sept. 2 murder.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation on Saturday blamed the delay on a testing backlog and the Memphis Police Department’s decision to not request expedited DNA analysis — a revelation that comes as some are questioning the adequacy of MPD’s investigation of the 2021 rape.

Two people familiar with the investigation of the 2021 incident say detectives had a strong case — including several pieces of evidence that pointed toward Abston — and should have pursued it more aggressively.

“Memphis Police submitted the SAK (sexual assault kit) on September 23, 2021 (two days after the rape), and the evidence was put into the queue of unknown assailant kits, as no request was made for TBI analysis to be expedited, and no suspect information or DNA standard was included in the submission,’’ TBI said in a opens in a new windowstatement issued through spokesperson Keli McAlister.

A DNA standard, or a DNA sample, can be taken with a warrant when police have probable cause to suspect an individual of a rape.

“The TBI accepts rush DNA cases when requested by a local investigative agency, as we did in the recent Eliza Fletcher case,’’ the TBI statement said. “Last weekend, the work of our scientists identified Cleotha Abston as the suspect less than 18 hours after receiving key evidence, which was critical in his subsequent apprehension.

A forensic evidence drop box inside the TBI office in Memphis in 2020.  (Karen Pulfer Focht)

“Because we rarely know the facts of the case when processing evidence, TBI relies on submitting agencies to identify cases that would benefit their investigation from our rush analysis.”

Two people familiar with the investigation who asked that their identities not be revealed said MPD’s 2021 rape case was strong even without a DNA match.

One of those people said the victim in that case provided police with Abston’s phone number, his social media handle, his home address and a description of his car.

But when police did a photo lineup, the victim grew confused.

“She said, ‘I think it’s number five. But he didn’t have dreadlocks.’ So, (the detectives) said, ‘Note to file: Get a more recent photo.’ And they never did,’’ the person said.

“They dropped it.’’

MPD Major Karen Rudolph declined to discuss the person’s allegations, citing an “ongoing criminal prosecution.’’ She released this statement Saturday that said in part, “An official CODIS hit was not received until after the unfortunate event that occurred on September 2, 2022. Probable cause to make a physical arrest of any suspect did not exist until after the CODIS hit had been received.”

CODIS refers to the Combined DNA Index System, and FBI database containing millions of DNA profiles that is used to match suspects to crimes.

Online records maintained by the Shelby County Criminal Court Clerk’s Office show a grand jury indicted Abston (who also goes by the last name Henderson) in connection with the 2021 rape on Thursday, Sept. 8. Those records show he was charged with aggravated rape, especially aggravated kidnapping and unlawful possession of a weapon.

TBI’s statement, the full version of which is included below, provided this timeline leading to the indictment:

“During normal casework, a forensic scientist pulled this SAK submitted by MPD from evidence storage, along with 19 other kits designated for analysis, on June 24, 2022, and completed an initial report of the results on August 29th. From there, a scientist entered the resulting unknown male DNA profile into CODIS, which returned a match on Monday, September 5th, for Cleotha Abston in connection to the September 2021 assault, after which TBI reported the finding to Memphis Police.”

Retired MPD detective Cody Wilkerson in 2020. (Karen Pulfer Focht)

Retired MPD sex crimes detective Cody Wilkerson said, though he’s unfamiliar with the details of the 2021 rape investigation, getting a warrant for a DNA sample generally isn’t difficult.

“It’s the easiest warrant to get,’’ he said. “You just need a hint of probable cause.’’

Wilkerson also said that while a CODIS hit provides strong evidence, it is not necessarily essential to make an arrest in a rape.

“You need some supporting evidence from the victim,’’ he said, citing as examples injuries or corroborating details in a witness statement. Abston’s criminal history, which includes a rape arrest as a juvenile and a previous conviction for kidnapping, also would be cause for looking more closely at Abston, Wilkerson said.

Abston pleaded guilty in 2001 to the kidnapping of Memphis attorney Kemper Durand. He served 20 years in prison before he was released in late 2020.

Because of that conviction, Abston’s DNA was on file in CODIS — a key reason police were able to link him so quickly to Fletcher’s disappearance. Police said officers obtained DNA from Abston’s sandals left behind at the crime scene. Officers then submitted that DNA to TBI, which then ran an expedited CODIS check.

But testing has become backlogged in recent years. TBI said in its statement Saturday that 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 length of time to work these cases is attributed to the workload of the four scientists assigned to this unit. These forensic scientists work every biological evidence submission, ranging from homicides to SAKs, to robberies, assaults, and break-ins. In 2021, that included 602 evidence submissions,’’ TBI said in the statement.

To address the “profound challenges related to the volume” of rape kits, the statement says that the State of Tennessee will be adding “substantial investments in forensic biology analysis.

“We are in the process of hiring three additional scientists and a technician to work Forensic Biology cases in our Jackson Crime Laboratory, as part of our ongoing effort to improve turnaround times. As directed by legislation from the General Assembly we’ve also launched a robust tracking system, for survivors to have more frequent updates about the status of their kit, as it works its way through our laboratory system,’’ the statement said.

No timeline was given as to when these additional resources would be in place.

Part of the delay in testing stems back to the massive backlog caused by MPD’s reluctance for years to test rape kits. The overwhelming majority of those rape victims were Black women.

“We just saw that the TBI turns around DNA test results in less than 24 hours,” said prominent Memphis defense attorney Michael Working, who is critical of MPD’s handling of sexual assault investigations.

A lawsuit filed against the City of Memphis in 2014 that’s still winding through the system eight years later contends that MPD was negligent in failing to test thousands of rape kits or adequately investigate sexual assault over the course of decades.

The suit, which was filed in Shelby Circuit Court, pursues an allegation the city negligently inflicted emotional distress on victims through careless handling of rape kits and indifference to sexual assault.

The case involves a novel approach, in that it builds on a 2005 Tennessee Supreme Court decision involving the Catholic Diocese of Nashville. In that case, the court allowed families of two non-Catholic boys abused by a priest outside of church activities to pursue discovery against the diocese because church officials had recklessly inflicted emotional harm on the families by not adequately investigating longstanding abuse allegations against the priest inside the church.

The suit is heading toward a showdown in October, when various motions, including one for summary judgment, are expected to be heard.

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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