Class action suit over delays in rape kits moves forward in Memphis, but survivors feel no relief
As the suit over a backlog of 12,000 rape kits proceeds, two Democratic lawmakers work a bill that require processing of kits within 30 days of submission
Debby Dalhoff was raped and tortured in her home in 1985 by a masked intruder. She says the way her case has been handled by Memphis Police Department, including the loss and destruction of much of the evidence, makes her feel like she has been raped twice. (Tennessee Lookout/ © Karen Pulfer Focht)
Debby Dalhoff says she’s always been a happy, outgoing person around friends and family.
“What they don’t know is when I sit on my back porch at night, what goes through my mind,” said the 68-year-old retired FedEx manager. “It’s constant. It never ends. That inner demon that you can’t get rid of until we can get some closure.”
Dalhoff is one small step closer to closure — maybe — with last month’s ruling by a Shelby County Circuit Court judge that the lawsuit Janet Doe v. City of Memphis, over the decades-long mishandling of thousands of rape investigations, could proceed as a class action. This case began winding its way through the courts in 2014, not long after the Memphis Police Department revealed a backlog of more than 12,000 forensic rape exams, or rape kits.
Dalhoff is one of dozens who signed on to that lawsuit, and has been hoping for years that it would get a class-action certification. She calls the recent ruling a milestone, but only a “breather.”
She says she won’t celebrate yet, with all the work that still lies ahead. Attorneys have to track down as many survivors as they can to join the class action; that is, those who are still alive, because some of the mishandled cases date back nearly half a century.
“I’ve thought about volunteering my time from a clerical standpoint, see if there’s anything I could do to help [ attorneys] build a spreadsheet, and contacting these people,” said Dalhoff, over the phone from her home in Memphis.
What they don't know is when I sit on my back porch at night, what goes through my mind. It's constant. It never ends. That inner demon that you can't get rid of until we can get some closure.
– Debby Dalhoff, sexual assault survivor
She takes a deep breath. “I shouldn’t even have to be doing all this.”
Dalhoff is tired. She’s been seeking closure for 38 years, and for nearly a decade now has been doing the investigative legwork that police never did. When she was 29, Dalhoff and her roommate were blindfolded, gagged, hogtied, raped and tortured for hours, by a man who then washed off traces of himself on them and even vacuumed the house, taking the vacuum cleaner bag with him.
“Think about this, in 1985 DNA wasn’t that popular, but obviously this person was someone who knew something about a cleanup, DNA. Because of that I was told in the beginning of my investigation that they were looking for someone possibly in law enforcement, fireman, paramedic, policeman. So they always had that in the back of their mind.”
Years went by, though, without any new information. When she heard about the massive backlog in 2014, she started calling the police again, obtained her case files and had her case reopened. In 2015, an MPD officer told Dalhoff her evidence was tested, but no DNA was found.
“Well, that’s a bold-faced lie,” said Dalhoff, “because [former Shelby County District Attorney] Amy Weirich told me that my kit had never been found, had never been tested. In fact, I was able to then obtain the documents that showed where every piece of my evidence, not my sexual assault kit, but [other] evidence that could have had DNA on it…was all destroyed.”
Dalhoff’s rape took place before DNA testing became a widespread practice, and before the Memphis Police Department gained access to an FBI database of DNA records called CODIS, where samples can be matched. That explains some of the backlog, until about 20 years ago, but not the disorganized storage of thousands of kits across the city. Or the destruction of countless others, in part because of storage overcrowding, but also in the erroneous belief that the statute of limitations on the cases had passed.
Dalhoff saw documentation that everything from her bed linens to the bindings used in the attack were dumped in a Memphis landfill in the 1990s.
“I had so much high hopes when I found out about the backlog, to then find out [my kit’s] at the bottom of a dump. How much lower can it be?” said Dalhoff. “They let perpetrators run free that could’ve been in jail. They’ve destroyed so many women.”
Thousands of survivors never saw justice, and an untold number of rapists would continue to attack others. Based on the M.O. of Dalhoff’s assault, authorities told her they believed the same man — a former neighbor and firefighter who has since died — was responsible for raping at least four other women. And he grew increasingly vicious, even running a needle and thread through one victim’s nipple, to yank on it.
“One of the most heinous crimes”
What’s striking about a case like Dalhoff’s is that it’s not a he-said/she-said version of events reflective of most sexual assaults, which are committed by someone the victim knows and which police and legislators nationwide have been slow to even recognize as a crime.
Still, Dalhoff’s case languished, uninvestigated, for decades. It’s that kind of negligence that attorney Gary Smith, who is representing the class-action survivors, said helped them establish that while sexual assault is “one of the most heinous crimes that there is, [it] did not have a priority within the sexual crimes unit” of the Memphis Police Department.
Smith calls the recent ruling “a huge victory, but it doesn’t portend a quick end to the case by any means. Unless the city wants to see this thing come to an end.” So far, though, he said there’s been no talk of a settlement from the city.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland declined to share his thoughts on the ruling, or the possibility of a settlement before the case goes to trial. A spokeswoman for the mayor told the Tennessee Lookout, “We can’t comment on litigation.”
How a system failure left a rapist free to attack again
Smith also represents Alicia Franklin, whose lawsuit against the city of Memphis was dismissed the same day that the class-action was certified, by a different judge. Franklin, who is Black, was raped at gunpoint, in 2021, by Cleotha Henderson, who in Sept. 2023 would kidnap, rape and kill Eliza Fletcher, a white kindergarten teacher whose case received national attention.
The DNA results from Franklin’s rape kit were reported after Fletcher went missing; indeed, Henderson was charged with Franklin’s rape after he was already in custody over Fletcher’s murder. Both women’s rape kits were submitted by MPD to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation for processing. According to a TBI statement, Franklin’s was not expedited, nor was there any suspect information attached to it, even though she knew Henderson’s name. The rape happened on what was meant to be a dinner date; the two met through a dating app.
State Sen. London Lamar says Fletcher’s case “put the idea of rape kits back into the public eye and made it a pressing issue,” which is good. However, she added, it’s no secret that some rape kits get preferential treatment within an already flawed system.
“When black girls go missing and get kidnapped and raped, are we stopping the whole police force to go look for them? No,” said Lamar. “Are we the public marching and doing candlelight vigils for them? No. So we also as a society, as a legislative body, have got to realize that there are still lives that are more valuable than others in the way that we handle people’s cases and our criminal justice system.”
The Memphis Democrat has a bill (SB0014/HB0024) working its way through the General Assembly — it passed unanimously in the state Senate, but still has to clear the House — that would require the TBI to process all kits, once they’ve been submitted by law enforcement, within 30 days. According to the TBI, rape kit processing currently varies from 30 to 56 weeks, depending on the city.
If Lamar’s legislation, co-sponsored with Rep. Bob Freeman (D-Nashville) passes, it could help level the playing field, close the racial disparity gap and prioritize rape investigations overall.
Yet Lamar knows that neither race nor the clock are the biggest obstacles in Tennessee.
Processing rape kits takes much less time than know-how and people power. Training scientists to process a sexual assault kit takes at least 18 months, according to the TBI. Keeping them in Tennessee takes more competitive salaries than the state has been offering.
The TBI has not hidden its need for more money, to hire dozens more scientists, but the agency has not received the budget bump it requested from Gov. Bill Lee’s administration. However, since March, the TBI has secured $1,850,000 in grant funding, to outsource 858 kits to out-of-state labs. So far, they’ve sent 550 to Florida, and agency spokesman Josh Devine says they plan to outsource the remaining 308 in early July.
Deborah Clubb, who is part of the Memphis Sexual Assault Kit Task Force created by former Mayor A.C. Wharton, finds the never-ending struggle to process rape kits disheartening.
“I have worked these years with police leadership who really wanted to make amends, so it’s been very hard for me to see the new backlog,” said Clubb, a veteran reporter and longtime advocate for survivors of sexual and domestic violence, who also heads the Memphis Area’s Women’s Council.
“Whether it’s the investigating, or the testing of kids or the prosecuting, these sex crimes are just going to keep on keeping on and they’re going to be older and older,” said Clubb. “And people who are hurt are going to be less and less willing to get into that treadmill system and put themselves through the agony of having to think about it.”
According to the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), in the US someone is sexually assaulted every minute, with nearly half a million victims age 12 and up every year.
These crimes often lead to much higher risk of suicide among survivors, and frequent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Research shows that combat veterans make up less than one percent of all PTSD cases in the US — while sexual assault victims comprise one-third of all diagnoses.
A second assault by the city
Dalhoff knows all too well the psychological and physical toll of sexual assault, though she says what followed was even worse. It’s not uncommon for survivors to call the physical assault less traumatic than others’ reaction to it, or lack thereof, especially from the criminal justice system.
“I never felt sorry for myself or anything like that,” said Dalhoff. “If anything, that initial rape made me a better person. Because it made me appreciate how precious life is. What has eaten me alive is what the city of Memphis has done to me. As I say it, I feel like I’ve been raped twice.”
Once by the perpetrator, she says. And once “viciously, by the city of Memphis.”
These days, she takes long walks in nature, to clear her head of “reality” and recharge for the continued fight. Dalhoff says she wants the class action to be resolved, and a formal recognition by the city of Memphis of all harm that was done, while her 91-year-old mother is still alive.
“She has walked through every step of this with me,” said Dalhoff, the only time she tears up in the hour-long conversation. “I want closure before my mom leaves me. I want justice before my mom leaves me, because she deserves it more than I do.”
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.