This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com on Sept. 21, 2022, under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute.
Memphis community leaders reacted with anger, frustration and demands for reform Wednesday as Alicia Franklin took her story of sexual assault and police neglect to a national television audience.
“The system somehow failed her,’’ former city councilwoman TaJuan Stout-Mitchell said after watching Franklin’s appearance on ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America” program broadcast from New York.
Franklin appeared on the program a day after filing a lawsuit accusing the Memphis Police Department of failing to properly investigate a rape she reported a year ago this month. Authorities allege Franklin was assaulted then by the same man who’s accused of abducting and murdering jogger Eliza Fletcher earlier this month.
But Cleotha Henderson, 38, was only charged with the September 2021 rape this month, after Fletcher’s Sept. 2 disappearance.
That’s because Franklin’s rape kit sat on a shelf for months. DNA testing was finally completed on Sept. 5, the day Fletcher’s body was found.
Franklin’s suit filed in Shelby County Circuit Court contends police could have prevented Fletcher’s murder if they’d taken Franklin’s September 2021 assault more seriously and pursued evidence then that pointed to Cleotha Henderson, aka Abston.
“We think of the justice system as being the last step — they’re going to do everything like it’s supposed to be done,’’ Stout-Mitchell said. “And when we hear of something so egregious like we just heard, then we say, ‘Okay, what the heck is going on?’ ’’
Like many, Andrea Neely, a community activist and former human relations professional, was troubled by the tragic loss of life and suffering in the Fletcher and Franklin cases, but also by the evident disparity they present:
DNA connected to the disappearance of Fletcher, 34, who was white and from a wealthy family, was tested within hours.
Evidence in the case of Franklin, 22, who is Black, was finally pulled off a shelf at the state crime lab for DNA testing nine months after it was received.
“I don’t want to see this happen to another victim. I think all victims should be taken seriously and made a priority regardless of race, economic status or what have you,’’ said Neely.
“Everybody needs to be heard and everybody needs to be treated the same.”
Franklin said in a separate interview Sunday with the Institute for Public Service Reporting and the Daily Memphian that she met Henderson through a dating app and that he assaulted her at gunpoint when she agreed to a face-to-face meeting.
Her lawsuit against the City of Memphis contends MPD failed to collect physical evidence from the crime scene or properly pursue leads.
The city has not yet filed an answer to her suit. A spokesman for Mayor Jim Strickland said the city doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
MPD has repeatedly declined requests for more details on the case over the past two weeks, citing an ongoing criminal investigation.
Calls for greater transparency from MPD and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which runs the state crime lab, have been building for days.
“I think TBI, the State of Tennessee and the Memphis Police Department all need to be forthcoming about why this wasn’t handled more expeditiously,’’ Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, said last week. “Who’s at fault? That’s hard to say.”
The TBI and MPD released competing statements following Henderson’s Sept. 8 indictment for the 2021 rape, with MPD pointing to TBI’s long DNA testing backlog and the state agency emphasizing that police decided not to request expedited processing, which can speed results in major cases.
Cohen said the TBI should expedite every rape kit that comes into their labs.
“To put them all in line like you’re at McDonald’s lining up to get an Egg McMuffin is crazy,” he said.
But tight funding has limited testing capacity.
TBI says 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 agency currently is hiring three additional scientists and a technician to work Forensic Biology cases in its Jackson Crime Laboratory.
State Sen. Raumesh Akbari said funding to expand the current facilities and staff is a priority for her in the upcoming legislative session.
“We’re going to have to look at how we’re funding these crime labs that the TBI is running, because if we’re not giving them the tools that they need, then this situation can happen again,” Akbari said. “If that information was available to be processed, we wouldn’t be in this situation. This tragedy wouldn’t have occurred in my mind.”
Rape survivor Debby Dalhoff found Franklin’s account particularly troubling.
“As a victim myself it just infuriates me that this has happened,’’ said Dalhoff, 66, whose still-unsolved 1985 home-invasion rape was complicated when Memphis police destroyed evidence in her case.
“I just — I can’t describe what this has done to me. It kind of brings it all back what happened to me.’’
Rape survivor Meaghan Ybos said she hopes the public will build on Franklin’s case to demand more transparency from MPD.
“Eliza Fletcher’s tragic killing and now this tragic rape case are under national scrutiny. Policymakers are rightly looking for ways to prevent such tragedies from happening again. If any reforms are to actually make us safer, they need to be based on facts,’’ said Ybos, whose rape kit sat untested for years before her attacker was finally identified.
“Thus, it is critical that MPD give the public more details about how detectives handled evidence from the 2021 rape case.”
Cohen said a formal inquiry should be conducted to examine the handling of Franklin’s case.
“Someone needs to make an investigation into who deserves what percentage of the blame. I think they all have some blame or some fault, whether one is greater than the other needs to be determined,” Cohen said. “Those things need to be looked at quickly, they need to be looked at thoroughly and possibly looked at by an objective third party.”
Julianna “Jules” Daniel expressed a similar sentiment.
“Two of the biggest things that Memphis needs right now are accountability and community,’’ said Daniel, who is the executive director for the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Coalition (SAPAC).
“We need to hold people perpetrating these crimes accountable. And going past that, we need people who are leading Memphis Police Department, we need them to hold their teams accountable. If their officers are contributing to the gaps or they’re saying incorrect things — they’re not saying the right, supportive things when they’re responding to these calls — (then) we need to hold them accountable.
“We need to get them more training. We need to correct them in the moment. We don’t wait eight months or anything to hold people accountable. We need to call it out as we see it.’’