NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee's lead investigative agency says it now takes less than half the time it took to process rape kits in August 2022, not long before the high-profile killing of a jogger shone a light on the long delays and prompted a funding boost.
Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director David Rausch discussed the improvements during a budget hearing in front of Gov. Bill Lee on Wednesday. He pointed to the most recent quarterly report, which shows the average turnaround time to process a rape kit this August was 19.6 weeks, compared to 45.4 weeks last August. He said the average time is now at about 18 weeks.
The state’s turnaround times for sexual assault kits drew heavy scrutiny after the high-profile killing of teacher Eliza Fletcher in September 2022. The man charged with killing Fletcher was charged in a 2021 rape of a different woman shortly afterward, when the rape kit from that case was finally processed.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation had attributed its long delays to staffing woes and low pay.
In September 2022, Lee and lawmakers quickly fast-tracked funding for 25 additional forensic lab positions after the bureau had requested 50 in last year's budget, but were initially funded for half of those. Of those 50 positions, 47 have been filled, Rausch said Wednesday. The bureau made a variety of other changes, including using a $1.85 million federal grant to contract with an outside lab to test more than 850 rape kits.
Additionally, this year's budget includes pay increases across various roles at the bureau.
“I think that was an obvious, immediate need," Lee, a Republican, told reporters Wednesday. "We all saw that the wait times were unacceptable and we made some very quick internal budget adjustments to pay for that short term to get dollars into that plan before they were actually appropriated through the budget."
Some of the new agency lab positions are aimed at DNA, while others are focused on other tasks, from toxicology to forensic chemistry.
The bureau now has 39 statewide positions in forensic biology, including 23 who have finished training, 11 who are being trained and five in the hiring process, according to the recent quarterly report.
Rausch has said some efforts to chip away at turnaround times include offering overtime; operating labs on weekends; and contracting with retired bureau workers to help provide training so current scientists can shift time spent training employees to more case work. He has set a goal of dropping the average down to 12 weeks, a mark he said now hopes to reach by January 2025.
By that date, Rausch said he hopes all workers will be trained and at a point where kits can be processed as they arrive, without extended delay.
The Jackson lab, which processed the DNA evidence related to the man charged in Fletcher's killing, has dropped from an average turnaround time of more than 48 weeks in August 2022 to about 18 weeks this August.
Days after Cleotha Abston was charged with abducting and killing Fletcher, he was indicted in the 2021 rape of another woman. Memphis police say they took a sexual assault report on Sept. 21, 2021, but it wasn’t analyzed in a state lab until nearly a year later. When the 2021 DNA was entered into the national database, it returned a match for Henderson on Sept. 5, 2022.
Fletcher, a mother of two and kindergarten teacher, disappeared on Sept. 2, 2022.
Prosecutors said in July that they will seek the death penalty if Abston, who has also gone by Cleotha Henderson, is convicted of first-degree murder in Eliza Fletcher’s killing. A judge in October set an April 8 trial for Abston on the charges of kidnapping and raping a woman in September 2021. Abston was charged with the 2021 rape days after he was charged with Fletcher’s killing. He has pleaded not guilty in both cases.
TBI said police in Memphis had made no request for expedited analysis of the kit, which can cut the wait to only days, and no suspect information was included in the submission.
Adrian Sainz in Memphis, Tennessee contributed to this report.