Lawmakers promise to seek more TBI crime lab funding in wake of high-profile case

By: - September 20, 2022 6:02 am
Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (Photo: TBI)

Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (Photo: TBI)

State lawmakers are expected to pour more funds into a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation crime lab personnel after a Memphis murder shed light on the fact some rape kits are languishing for eight months to nearly a year unless they get “rush” status from local law enforcement.

The Jackson crime lab, which handles Shelby County evidence, reported average turnaround time for sexual assualt kits ranged from 33 to 49 weeks between September 2021 to August 2022.

In comparison to surrounding states, Tennessee has the highest number of requests to the TBI crime lab and based on 2019-20 data, TBI needs 71 more positions to process the requests efficiently.

“The length of time to work these cases is attributed to the workload of the four scientists assigned to this unit,” the TBI said in a recent statement.

In preparation for this year’s budget talks, the law enforcement agency looked at surrounding states and found it has the highest number of submitted biological requests analyzed per scientist, according to an agency statement. A staffing calculator by West Virginia University determined that TBI’s crime labs need 71 more positions just based on 2019-20 data.

TBI requested 40 forensic scientists for this budget year but received funding for 20 of those positions, meaning it received only about 25% of the personnel it needs to match other states.

Some officials believe Memphis teacher and mother Eliza Fletcher might be alive today if the state’s work on sexual assault kits weren’t so far behind. In the course of the investigation into murder suspect Cleotha Abston Henderson, TBI found out about a sexual assault kit submitted in September 2021 that might have been linked to Henderson.

"Unfathomable," said Lt. Gov. Randy McNally: of the discovery of evidence tying the man to the killing of Eliza Fletcher in Memphis to a 2021 rape. (John Partipilo)
“Unfathomable,” said Lt. Gov. Randy McNally of the discovery of evidence tying the man alleged to have killed Eliza Fletcher in Memphis to a 2021 rape. (John Partipilo)

A year ago, the kit was put into the crime lab’s queue for unknown assailants because no request was made for TBI to expedite the evidence and no suspect information or DNA standard was included, according to a TBI statement. As it turned out, Henderson was linked to the September 2021 rape and is now charged in the rape and killing of Fletcher.

That delay in processing rape kits is drawing renewed attention from Democratic and Republican legislative leaders even though they’ve known about the problem for years.

“The backlog in rape kits has been a continuing problem and one that is extremely troubling,” Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, said in a recent statement.

McNally contends Henderson shouldn’t have been on the streets when he allegedly committed the most recent crime. 

“But the fact that he was and we are just now finding out about this evidence now is simply unfathomable,” McNally said.

McNally pointed out the Legislature funded numerous new positions for TBI this fiscal year and another round of funding for additional forensic positions in the next budget is tentatively planned in an effort to cut wait times for sexual assault kits.

“These kinds of backlogs are simply unacceptable,” McNally said.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, agreed that six months to 12 months for a rape kit backlog is “atrocious” and “unacceptable.”

“We’re gonna give the TBI whatever resources they need to get the job done, to get that number to an acceptable level, which … is 30 days or less,” Sexton said recently.

In 2021, Tennessee Lookout reporter Anita Wadhwani reported on one of the problems with TBI testing: 76,000 missing DNA samples, a third of which were estimated to be from Memphis. Video here.

In addition to 40 forensic scientists, the TBI requested eight lab technicians and two administrative assistants and received the funding for 25 total slots.

Sexton spoke about the matter after House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie held a press conference last week to call for more TBI funding.

While Sexton and Dixie agree on very little, including the need for longer prison sentences for violent criminals, they might find common ground on providing more funds for the TBI to hire crime lab personnel and better pay. 

Dixie pointed out the starting salary for a TBI forensic scientist is a “measly” $45,000, despite the amount of education necessary to apply for the position, as well as the training required to do the job.

“That’s shameful and weak,” Dixie said, especially when Gov. Bill Lee’s administration boasts about a $1.8 billion rainy day fund and a AAA bond rating.

Rape kit crisis legislation sponsored by state Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, and former Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, in 2014 would have called for police to submit rape kits to TBI within 10 days of receipt and the agency to analyze them within six months. It was considered too expensive, however, and failed to gain traction, according to Dixie.

Besides fully funding TBI’s forensic laboratories, Dixie said the Legislature needs to boost K-12 spending, increase funds for local law enforcement and pass “common-sense” gun safety laws. 

A TBI forensic scientist pulled the September 2021 rape kit from evidence storage on June 24, 2022, along with 19 other kits, and completed an initial analysis on Aug. 29, according to TBI, then entered an “unknown male DNA profile” into a national system. It returned a match on Sept. 5 for Abston Henderson in connection with the September 2021 assault, which TBI reported to Memphis Police.

"Shameful and weak," was how Democratic House Caucus Chair Vincent Dixie, characterized starting salaries for TBI forensic scientists. Photo: John Partipilo)
“Shameful and weak,” was how Democratic House Caucus Chair Vincent Dixie, characterized starting salaries for TBI forensic scientists. Photo: John Partipilo)

Shelby County law enforcement agencies submitted 216 sexual assault requests to the TBI crime lab in 2021, the most for any county in the state. Knox County ranked second with 168 requests.

Besides working on sexual assault kits, TBI forensic scientists handle biological evidence submissions for homicides, robberies, assaults and break-ins. In addition to processing that biological evidence, the agency’s forensic scientists go to crime scenes when necessary and testify in court hearings.

“We certainly recognize the profound challenges related to the volume of (sexual assault kits) requiring this in-depth analysis and implemented an effort, from June through September, to focus our limited resources in this area, to reduce turnaround times by assigning scientists to prioritize these cases,” TBI said in its statement.

The agency is in the process of hiring three scientists and a technician to work cases in its Jackson crime lab as part of that effort to cut the backlog.

In addition, the TBI said it started a “robust” tracking system, at the Legislature’s direction, to give survivors more frequent updates about sexual assault kits as they go through the lab system.

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial and Best Single Feature from the Tennessee Press Association.