Lawmakers promise to seek more funds for TBI crime lab following high-profile case – Tennessee Lookout

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

The Jackson Crime Lab, which handles Shelby County evidence, reported that the average turnaround time for sexual assault kits ranged from 33 to 49 weeks between September 2021 and August 2022.

Compared to surrounding states, Tennessee has the highest number of requests to the TBI crime lab, and based on 2019-20 data, TBI needs an additional 71 positions to effectively process requests.

“The length of time working on 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 reviewed surrounding states and found it had the highest number of submitted biological claims analyzed by scientist, according to an agency statement. A West Virginia University staffing calculator determined that TBI’s crime labs needed 71 additional positions based on 2019-20 data alone.

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

Some officials believe Memphis teacher and mother Eliza Fletcher may be aliveay if the state’s work on sexual assault kits wasn’t so far behind. During the investigation of murder suspect Cleotha Abston Henderson, TBI uncovered a sexual assault kit submitted in September 2021 that may have been linked to Henderson.

“Unfathomable,” Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally said of the discovery of evidence linking the man suspected of killing Eliza Fletcher in Memphis to a 2021 rape. (Jean Partipilo)

A year ago, the kit was placed in the crime lab queue for unknown assailants as no request was made to the TBI to expedite evidence and no suspicious information or DNA standard was included, according to a BIT statement. It turned out that Henderson was linked to the September 2021 rape and is now charged with the rape and murder of Fletcher.

This delay in processing rape kits is once again attracting the attention of Democratic and Republican legislative leaders, even though they have known about the problem for years.

“The backlog of rape kits is a persistent and extremely troubling issue,” Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, said in a recent statement.

McNally argues that Henderson should not have been on the streets when he allegedly committed the most recent crime.

“But the fact that he was and that we just discovered this evidence is just unfathomable,” McNally said.

McNally pointed out that the Legislative Assembly has funded many new positions for TBI this fiscal year and that another round of funding for additional forensic positions in the next budget is tentatively planned in an effort to reduce the times waiting for sexual assault kits.

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

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

“We’re going to give the TBI all the resources they need to do the job, to bring that number down to an acceptable level, which … is 30 days or less,” Sexton said recently.

In addition to 40 medical examiners, the TBI requested eight lab technicians and two administrative assistants and received funding for a total of 25 slots.

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

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

Dixie pointed out that the starting salary for a TBI medical examiner is “paltry” $45,000, despite the amount of education needed to apply for the position, as well as the training required to do the job.

“It’s shameful and weak,” Dixie said, especially when Governor Bill Lee’s administration boasts of having a rainy day fund of about $1.8 billion 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 on police to submit rape kits to the TBI within 10 days of receipt and the agency to analyze them within six months. However, it was considered too expensive and failed to gain traction, according to Dixie.

In addition to fully funding TBI’s forensic labs, Dixie said the Legislature must increase K-12 spending, increase funds for local law enforcement, and pass gun safety laws “from common sense”.

A TBI medical examiner removed the September 2021 rape kit from evidence storage on June 24, 2022, along with 19 other kits, and performed an initial analysis on August 29, according to the TBI, then entered a “DNA profile unknown male” in a national system. He returned a Sept. 5 match for Abston Henderson in connection with the September 2021 assault, which TBI reported to Memphis police.

“Shameful and weak,” is how Democratic House Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie called the starting salaries of TBI medical examiners. Photo: John Partipilo)

Shelby County law enforcement 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 applications.

In addition to working on sexual assault kits, TBI medical examiners process biological evidence submissions for homicides, robberies, assaults, and break and enters. In addition to processing this biological evidence, the agency’s forensic pathologists visit crime scenes if necessary and testify in court hearings.

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

The agency is hiring three scientists and a technician to work on cases at its Jackson crime lab as part of the effort to reduce the backlog.

Additionally, the TBI said it has launched a “robust” tracking system, under the direction of the Legislative Assembly, to give survivors more frequent updates on sexual assault kits as they go through the lab system.

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