Tennessee fast-tracks new forensic jobs amid rape kit delays

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and senior lawmakers announced Thursday they will accelerate more money to hire 25 additional forensic lab positions as the state’s turnaround times for sexual assault kits slow a high-profile review will be examined killing.

The news comes just weeks after authorities confirmed that the man charged with the kidnapping and murder of a Tennessee teacher was in the 2021 rape case of a woman due to the delay in processing the sexual assault kit had not been charged.

Cleotha Henderson was finally charged in the death of Eliza Fletcher, a mother of two and a kindergarten teacher, just days after his arrest. An autopsy report released Thursday showed Fletcher died from a gunshot wound to the head.

In the earlier case, Memphis police said they picked up a sexual assault report on September 21, 2021, but it wasn’t analyzed until nearly a year later at a state lab. When the 2021 DNA was entered into the national database, it returned a match for Henderson on September 5. Fletcher disappeared on September 2nd.

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The news quickly sparked outrage among heads of state and victim advocates, who demanded that officials regulate how the state processes sexual assault kits.

According to Lee, the 25 additional positions include scientists, technicians and administrative staff at laboratories in Jackson, Nashville and Knoxville. Funding comes from the current state budget, and Lee said he will push to fund it again in next year’s budget, which Lee will propose and lawmakers will consider in early 2023.

“While there is absolutely still more work to be done, I am pleased that we can take this extra step to clear this backlog. We need to get these violent criminals off the streets and keep them off,” said Senate Speaker Randy McNally, a Republican.

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In August, Tennessee’s three state laboratories took an average of 28 to 49 weeks to process rape kits under circumstances that do not include a rush test order, and more than 950 requests for rape kits were pending at the labs. TBI attributed the delays to staffing issues: The agency requested 40 more special agent/forensic scientist positions and 10 more technicians in the last budget, but Lee and the legislature funded half of that amount. TBI also says low wages make it harder to recruit and retain scientists.

Officials did not immediately say how the new positions would be split. The labs currently have 26 DNA-focused special agent/forensic scientist positions, some of which are being hired or trained. Caregivers — six with a focus on DNA — can also do lab work. Three forensic technicians with DNA duties are in the recruitment process.

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Currently, TBI says it accepts “rush DNA cases” when requested by local law enforcement. However, there is no timeline for when a sexual assault kit must be received and analyzed.

Henderson, also known as Cleotha Abston, is accused of kidnapping and killing Fletcher, 34. Henderson is being held in the Shelby County Jail on a par with the charges arising out of Fletcher’s death.

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Staff writer Adrian Sainz in Memphis contributed.

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