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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis

Criminal Justice

Rape Kit Reforms Loom As Alicia Franklin Heads Back To Court

As rape victim Franklin tries to reinstate her suit against Memphis police, officials slowly address DNA testing shortcomings

The site of the former Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center where police unsuccessfully sought to open a rape kit DNA testing lab in 1997. City Council members again are talking about opening a Memphis lab. (Karen Pulfer Focht for the Institute for Public Service Reporting)

Alicia Franklin’s long fight for justice comes to a head later this month.

Raped at gunpoint in 2021, she sued the city of Memphis last fall accusing police detectives of negligence for failing to expediently arrest a key suspect despite powerful evidence of his guilt.

She believes police didn’t try.

Alicia Franklin

“Rape victims are not taken seriously,’’ Franklin, 22, said on a recent lazy Sunday morning as she tended to her young daughter.

Franklin first went public with her story following the murder of Eliza Fletcher, who was abducted last September while jogging near the University of Memphis. A day after police arrested Cleotha Henderson for Fletcher’s murder, they booked him for Franklin’s rape – a crime he’d allegedly committed nearly a year earlier.

So, Franklin, who had immediately reported the attack and had given officers powerful nuggets of information including Henderson’s phone number and a description of his car, filed suit contending if police had acted earlier on her rape, “the abduction and murder of Eliza Fletcher would not have occurred.’’

A judge dismissed the suit in March on technical grounds, but Franklin has filed a motion to reinstate it. A hearing is set for June 22.

Win or lose, Franklin’s case has triggered wide discussion about Tennessee’s readiness – or unwillingness, some say – to conduct speedy and thorough investigations of sexual assault.

In Memphis, City Council began talks this spring about possibly building a city-owned crime lab to reduce reliance on the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s clogged state crime labs.

In addition to troubling questions about MPD’s investigation, a massive statewide backlog in DNA testing contributed to delays in arresting Henderson. Franklin’s rape kit sat on a shelf in a state crime lab for nearly a year before testing was completed.

Meantime, in Nashville, state officials are hiring dozens of new crime lab employees and are spending millions more to raise the pay of existing employees – moves expected to reduce the average turnaround time for DNA testing in West Tennessee from 49 weeks down to eight to 12 weeks.

State Rep. Antonio Parkinson said the improvement doesn’t go nearly far enough, however.

“It’s still too long,’’ said Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat who sponsored a bill that would have required DNA testing to be completed in 30 days. The bill failed to survive budget hearings.

“When you think about how horrific, traumatic these situations are … that’s still too long. Anything over 30 days to me is unacceptable.’’

‘Sorely disappointed’

Parkinson posted a video on his TikTok page that he believes sums up a lack of resolve by state officials to fix the backlog.

The video is from a hearing of the Tennessee House of Representatives’ Finance, Ways and Means Committee from earlier this spring following the defeat of Parkinson’s bill. On it, Parkinson criticizes his colleagues for failing – again – to pass adequate reforms. Legislators had introduced a similar measure requiring a 30-day turnaround back in 2014 following revelations that Memphis police had failed to test thousands of rape kits that accumulated over the course of years.

Antonio Parkinson speaks at a legislative hearing earlier this spring.

“We are going back down the same exact path of doing the same exact thing that we did in 2014. And I’m sorely disappointed in this. I’m sorely disappointed in us that we did not see this as a priority,’’ Parkinson said on the video.

Parkinson says he believes the state can easily afford a 30-day turnaround considering its sizeable, $2 billion reserve fund.

At one point on the video, Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee, pushed back, suggesting Parkinson could have worked his bill harder.

“We’re happy to talk about it next year,’’ Williams said. “I can’t speak for the other chairmen, but I did not get one phone call from TBI asking us to fund this. … So, I appreciate your passion and I fully understand it. But in this instance, it just was not on the radar that we had because there wasn’t very much discussion about it.’’

Parkinson, in turn, pushed back harder.

“It’s time out for conversations,’’ he retorts on the video. “Tell that to the family of Eliza Fletcher, that you want to have more conversations about getting rape kits tested instead of having the will to make this a priority … Tell that to the family of Alicia Franklin.”

Crime lab expansion will take time

Gov. Bill Lee and the TBI have coordinated with lawmakers over the past year to add extra personnel to the state’s three crime labs to reduce DNA testing turnaround time.

According to data released by TBI, the state crime-fighting agency has added 50 new crime lab positions to its Forensic Division since last year – a 33 percent increase – at an annual recurring cost of $8.8 million. Those positions came in two waves:

  • The first 25 were approved in TBI’s budget during the 2022 legislative session.
  • The second 25 “were agreed upon by State leaders in September 2022’’ following Fletcher’s Sept. 2 abduction, TBI spokesperson Keli McAlister said in a statement. TBI tapped into its savings to begin filling those positions in December. In addition, the General Assembly approved new funding that takes effect July 1.

Lawmakers also committed $23.1 million this spring for TBI pay raises that include new, competitive crime lab salaries to stem the loss of forensic scientists to private labs.

For a forensic scientist conducting DNA analysis, the pay range will increase from the current $45,324-$76,788 up to $66,096-$105,396, an increase on the high end of 37 percent.

TBI has been on notice for some time that its crime lab staffing levels were inadequate.

Forensics researcher Paul Speaker had warned years earlier that TBI’s labs were running dozens short of a full complement. The West Virginia University Department of Finance professor’s 2019-2020 data indicates TBI’s labs needed 71 additional employees to cover the level of demand for forensic testing.

TBI elected to add only 50 employees now, in part, because it lacks workspace to accommodate extra personnel.

“To expand beyond the requested positions would require additional laboratory workspace which could have extensive costs, and would require sufficient time to build/renovate before additional positions would be appropriate,’’ McAlister said in the statement.

Yet even now, with the 50 new positions approved, TBI won’t realize the full effect of those additions for some time. Part of that involves training. New lab employees generally require 18 months of training.

And not all the positions have been filled.

Three of the first 25 positions approved last year still have not been filled, according to hiring tables TBI released on May 15. Eight of the second 25 positions remain open. That includes four positions in TBI’s crime lab in Jackson, which serves Memphis and the rest of West Tennessee’s 21 counties.

Should Memphis build its own lab?

Memphis is one of the few major U.S. cities without a full-service crime lab within its borders.

TBI’s now-closed Memphis crime lab (Marc Perrusquia)

That wasn’t always the case.

Considering that the greatest concentration of West Tennessee’s major violent crime is in Memphis, TBI had moved its crime lab here from Jackson in 2001. But then, in 2021, it moved the lab 85 miles back to Jackson. Supporters said Jackson is more centrally located in West Tennessee. But the move put Memphis at a distinct disadvantage.

Police officials across the country say there’s extreme value in a department having its own lab. Department-run labs aid investigations through close communication, supporters say.

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,’’ retired San Diego sex crimes detective Joanne Archambault told the Institute for Public Service Reporting last year. “So, it’s a partnership.”

The lack of a crime lab here prompted discussion in early May among City Council members who are asking if Memphis should build its own lab as Nashville did in 2014. Memphis considered building a rape kit DNA testing center in 1997, but gave up on the idea after TBI said it would move its West Tennessee crime lab to Memphis.

“We’re such a large population. We have such a large need here. Why not make that investment and build a lab out here,’’ said Councilman Worth Morgan, who floated the idea during a budget hearing on May 8.

Memphis may have a couple options to help reduce the backlog, Morgan said. One involves adding about $600,000 to the city’s upcoming capital improvement project budget for architectural and engineering design of a future lab. That could jumpstart serious discussion, he said. Another option might be to put more money in next year’s police budget to partner with private, third-party labs to help speed DNA testing.

“I think the most likely scenario when this budget is said and done in late June will be between $600K and $1M allocated for consultant’s fees, site selection/acquisition, as well as A&E (architecture and engineering) plans,” Morgan is in a follow-up email June 2. “The focus of the crime lab will be specifically Sexual Assault cases with the potential to scale up in the future. I’ve yet to hear any resistance.”

As for Franklin, she said recent efforts by the state and city to reduce the backlog should have been done years earlier.

“It shouldn’t take for someone to have to lose their life … and spark national attention for them to do that,’’ she said.

Her lawsuit against the city focused on police failures, contending Henderson “should and could have been arrested’’ for Franklin’s rape “many months earlier, most likely in the year 2021.’’

Yet following a dizzying series of revelations involving police missteps – detectives never questioned Henderson, didn’t take fingerprints at the scene of Franklin’s rape and failed to expedite testing of her rape kit – Circuit Court Judge Mary L. Wagner dismissed Franklin’s suit in March, citing a recent Tennessee Supreme Court decision that narrows liability of government employees for reckless actions.

Franklin’s 22-page motion asking Wagner to reinstate her case includes an affidavit from Henderson’s girlfriend and contends that police might have been protecting Henderson from arrest and prosecution.

Franklin said failure to reinstate her suit would be an injustice.

“You’re basically telling me to shut up and deal with it,’’ she said.

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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