Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. (Photo: tn.gov)
Gov. Bill Lee and legislative leaders announced plans Thursday to expedite the hiring of forensic lab positions in the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to speed up turnaround on sexual assault kits.
Twenty-five forensic lab positions, including forensic scientists, technicians and administrative support, are to be filled across the state: eight in the TBI’s Jackson lab, 11 at the agency’s Nashville lab and six at the Knoxville lab.
The law enforcement agency will use existing funds to hire the personnel this fiscal year, and recurring funding for the extra positions will be included in the fiscal 2023-24 budget, according to the Governor’s Office.
The move comes in the wake of the rape and murder of Memphis teacher Eliza Fletcher, whose alleged killer, Cleotha Abston Henderson, was connected to a rape kit taken a year before his August arrest. The sexual assault kit languished on TBI’s shelf for 11 months before the agency started testing. It also had no identification attached to it.
TBI requested 50 laboratory positions, including 40 forensic scientists, for this budget year but received funding for 20 of those forensic science jobs, meaning it received only about 25% of the personnel it needs to match other states.
In a Thursday press conference, Lee contended the state had made the biggest investment ever to TBI, $42 million for 150 positions since 2019. The positions budgeted for this year are being filled, but a “gap of money” is available to spend more on the extra personnel, he said.
Asked if it was fair to other rape victims for Fletcher’s death to initiate discussion about the need for more funding to cut the backlog, Lee would say only that his office put $25 million toward reducing the backlog and is now providing the agency 25 more positions. He did acknowledge, however, that the agency has had a rape kit backlog for “a long time.”
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who played a role in providing the new positions, said it is important to eliminate the sexual assault kit backlog and keep violent criminals off the streets.
“We cannot do that if we cannot identify, arrest and incarcerate them. Rape is a particularly egregious and heinous crime. The current turnaround times for rape kits are clearly unacceptable,” McNally said.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton called it “an important step in a series of steps” toward eliminating the backlog of rape kits while supporting the TBI and law enforcement agencies.
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