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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis

Criminal Justice and Policing

Rape Kit Lawsuit Heads Toward Showdown

Suit against city of Memphis takes on new urgency as officials wrestle with revived backlog that led to Eliza Fletcher’s death

Debby Dalhoff was raped and tortured in her home in 1985 by a masked intruder. The case was never solved. Records show evidence in her case was among items boxed up and tossed in a local landfill. (Karen Pulfer Focht)

Debby Dalhoff has waited 37 years for this day.

Viciously raped by an unknown attacker during a home invasion in 1985, she later learned the Memphis Police Department had secretly destroyed her evidence, making her case all but impossible to solve.

Now, she’ll be watching closely as key hearings are held Thursday and Friday of this week in a long-running lawsuit that accuses MPD of neglect in the handling of thousands of rape kits over the course of decades.

“It’s hard to have a lot of hope because it’s lasted so long. And I’m scared to get my hopes up only to be let down again,’’ said Dalhoff, 67.

“If we are able to win this, it’s going to be bittersweet for me, because the city is finally going to have to admit that they were wrong.”

Shelby County Circuit Court Judge Gina Higgins will hear motions for summary judgment from both the city and from lawyers representing scores of women backing the suit filed in 2014 following disclosures that MPD had failed to test thousands of rape kits, some dating back to the 1980s.

The suit was filed in 2014 following disclosures that MPD had failed to test thousands of rape kits, some dating back to the 1980s.  (Karen Pulfer Focht)

City leaders eventually erased that 12,000-kit backlog by raising more than $15 million in public and private funds to test those kits and investigate cold cases.

But the suit, which seeks class action status, takes on new urgency as officials wrestle with a new backlog caused in part by insufficient resources in the state crime lab.

The new backlog came to light last month following disclosures that the crime lab took nearly a year to test the rape kit of a woman allegedly attacked in September 2021 by Cleotha Henderson aka Abston. Before the lab finally completed DNA testing of Alicia Franklin’s kit, Henderson was charged with the murder of Eliza Fletcher, who was abducted during an early morning jog last month.

Eliza Fletcher

A separate Circuit Court lawsuit filed by Franklin last month accuses MPD of failing to adequately investigate her Sept. 21, 2021 rape. The suit contends Fletcher would still be alive if officers had acted prudently and arrested Henderson last fall.

“Both cases have as their objective to make them change the system and do their job,’’ said Gary K. Smith, a Memphis attorney representing plaintiffs in both cases.

A spokesperson for the City of Memphis did not respond to a request for comment.

Records show that by 2019 the city had spent $1.5 million battling the 2014 Circuit Court suit and a second suit filed in federal court in 2013 but dismissed earlier this year.

A current figure on the city’s legal spending was not available Wednesday.

The 2014 suit pursues a legal theory that the city negligently inflicted emotional distress on victims through careless handling of rape kits and indifference to sexual assault.

The case 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.

Gary K. Smith, (right) attorney for the plaintiffs suing the City of Memphis over the rape kit backlog, earlier this year at a deposition hearing. Rape survivor Debby Dahlhoff (center) looks on. (Karen Pulfer Focht)

Motions before Judge Higgins include one to certify a class of claimants. If successful, the city’s potential liability could increase dramatically. Lawyers for the plaintiffs said they’ve signed contracts with dozens of victims.

The city also has filed a motion to exclude the testimony of former MPD sex crimes detective Cody Wilkerson, who testified in a 2017 deposition hearing about indifference and incompetence at MPD, contending that a “significant percentage’’ of sex crimes cases were closed without any DNA testing and sometimes investigations were shut down even after DNA tests identified a suspect. 

Discovery in the case also includes testimony from retired MPD property room manager Lester Ditto who said he relied on a now-contested legal memo to destroy rape kits and collateral evidence in possibly thousands of cases in the 1990s.

Records show evidence in Dalhoff’s case was among items boxed up and tossed in a local landfill even though her case is still prosecutable today.

“I do have hope,’’ said Dalhoff, who believes she and her fellow victims can prevail in their suit.

“If this does happen it’s not going to be full closure for me. It’ll be a bit of closure.’’

This story first appeared at 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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