NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Cleotha Abston Henderson is the man accused of abducting and killing Memphis teacher Eliza Fletcher back in early September of this year.
But police discovered Henderson was also linked to a September 2021 rape case by state forensic scientists.
Evidence from that case sat in lab storage for months and was discovered the same day Fletcher’s body was found.
It now leads to the question of just how many rape kits are waiting to be tested.
“When you sit in a room and hold someone’s hand as they’re sobbing through a rape kit and you multiply that by 189, it feels very different,” said Lorraine McGuire.
This experience is something that’s changed McGuire.
“To experience what they have to go through after an assault still… it was really eye-opening, she said. “Just the tears, the physical pain, the embarrassment… it was heartbreaking.”
But it’s at the Sexual Assault Center in Nashville where McGuire and her colleagues not only help rape survivors but provide rape kits.
“We’re fortunate in the state of Tennessee that TBI has their own lab,” she said. “We’re fortunate in Davidson County that Metro Nashville Police Department has their own lab, so our wait times are a little bit less but it’s still hovering usually around six months to a year.”
That’s how long kits can sit on the shelves while the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation works to test them.
But as we learned in Memphis, the man accused of kidnapping and killing Eliza Fletcher was tied to a rape kit that had been submitted nearly a year ago.
“We need to properly fund what should be a priority for our state,” said Representative Bob Freeman.
Freeman pushed a newly enacted bill last year requiring a tracking system for TBI’s rape kits, but he’s now pushing for more money to go towards funding more forensic scientists.
“It’s just not enough,” he said. “There needs to be more scientists that are in these labs testing not just for rape kits but for all forensic analysts.”
The TBI requested funding for 40 forensic scientists during the last budget cycle but was only granted funding for half with the majority going to Nashville and Jackson.
Funding for the positions became available on July 1 of this year, but the TBI became the hiring process back in May. They are currently interviewing candidates and are anticipating those hired to start at the end of October.
The TBI plans to request an additional 20 positions in the upcoming budget to balance out the original request. If approved, they will add eight more employees to their Nashville lab while their Knoxville and Jackson labs will each get six.
Since July of 2019, the TBI Nashville Forensic Biology Unit has averaged nearly 80 case submissions per month which equates to a little over six submissions per scientist position.
Knoxville’s unit averages nearly 60 case submissions a month while Jackson’s averages around 54.
The TBI says compensating employees fairly to meet the demands placed upon them has been challenging, which means hiring and retaining employees to work for their labs has been difficult.
They hope future improvements can be made to their pay structure to allow them to hire trained and experienced scientists.
“Rapists don’t just rape one time, and they generally escalate,” said McGuire.
McGuire hopes things can change and that more money is given to decrease our state’s large backlog.
“We need to get these rape kits quick and get everybody that pops for those rape kits off the streets because again they are going to do it again if they’ve not already done it multiple times while the kit is just sitting there,” she said.
Freeman says he is going to work to get more funding approved for forensic scientist positions during the next legislative session. Freeman says he also plans to work to provide more confidentiality for victim advocates as well.
News 2 reached out to the Joyful Heart Foundation which tracks the backlog of rape kits across the United States.
Director of Policy and Advocacy Ilse Knecht sent us the statement below:
“Eliza Fletcher’s life could have been spared by faster DNA testing, which compounds this heartbreaking tragedy,” said Ilse Knecht, policy and advocacy director for the Joyful Heart Foundation. “When rape kits are tested swiftly, dangerous serial criminals, like the one in this case, who don’t stop until we stop them, are taken off the streets. We stand ready to work with leaders in Tennessee to prevent violent crimes by drastically decreasing rape kit testing times and making sure every rape kit is tested in a timely manner.”