NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — A bill aimed at reducing the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s longstanding rape kit backlog failed for a second time Tuesday after it was omitted from the governor’s budget.
The bill would have required the TBI to test rape kits within 30 days of receiving them in hopes of preventing future rapes and helping victims receive answers in a timely manner.
Tennessee’s long turnaround time for rape kit testing first came to light in 2014 when the state revealed it had a backlog of 9,000 rape kits.
A bill requiring the TBI to test the kits within 30 days was presented during the 2014 legislative session, however, it was killed in a House committee after going unfunded.
Tennessee’s rape kit problems received national attention again last September when Memphis teacher and mother, Eliza Fletcher, was kidnapped while on a run, then killed. It was later discovered the man accused of murdering her was linked to a rape case from the previous year, however, the victim’s rape kit hadn’t been tested yet.
Rep. Antonio Parkinson (D-Memphis), who sponsored the bill in both 2014 and 2023, told News 2 he believes had the legislature passed the rape kit bill in 2014, Fletcher would likely still be alive today.
Parkinson re-presented the bill this session following Fletcher’s murder, and it was killed again in the same House committee where it died in 2014.
“Repeating that same exact mistake that was made in 2014 in 2023, but this time we have the brutal murder of Eliza Fletcher in the backdrop, and the rape of Alicia Franklin in the backdrop,” Parkinson said. “We know better; we should have done better; we could have done better.”
Parkinson asked for $5.4 million to be included in next year’s budget to fund the expedited testing of rape kits, but some lawmakers told him during a House committee they didn’t know about his bill.
“(The bill being killed) means those individuals who are victims of rape, of sexual assault, it means that you’re not a priority for the state, number one,” Parkinson said. “Secondly, it means that you’re going to have to sit and lament and wait while your accused rapist is still out here in these streets.”
Jessica Barfield, the vice president of operations for the Sexual Assault Center in Nashville told News 2 she has seen sexual assault victims wait up to 18 months before their rape kits are tested.
Barfield said while she can’t speak for how the victims feel while waiting for the rape kit results, she can imagine it’s “frustrating and saddening.”
“They’re reliving the trauma every time it comes up; every time they are wondering about where it is and what’s going on with it, and then when it’s finally processed they’re reliving that trauma all over again,” Barfield said.
Barfield told News 2 that by not funding the bill, lawmakers sent a message to sexual assault victims that the state doesn’t prioritize the safety of Tennesseans.
“This isn’t something new that we’ve discovered; it’s not something new to Tennessee,” Barfield said. “There have been lots of talk about backlogs of rape kits and trying to be more proactive and do better on the processing for getting them tested, and here we are again just having more conversations about it,” she continued.
Lawmakers told Parkinson they hope to work with him next session to get the bill funded.
Despite the bill’s failure, Gov. Bill Lee promised to add more forensic staff positions to the TBI to help ease the backlog last September. The additional positions are included in the budget, which still needs to pass.