This article is from Tennessee/Lookout
More than year after the murder of a Memphis kindergarten teacher brought renewed public attention to the state’s lengthy delays in testing sexual assault evidence, average turnaround times for lab work still surpass five months, according to a report released last week by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
The testing delays fall short of the agency’s goal of returning evidence collected from sexual assault crimes within eight to 12 weeks, but mark an improvement in the 45-week turnaround times reported a year ago.
Delays in crime scene testing can defer justice for crime victims and pose risks to the larger community.
On the day the body of slain Memphis teacher Eliza Fletcher was discovered — the mother of two had been kidnapped on her morning jog — evidence collected from a rape reported a year earlier identified the suspect in both crimes. The sexual assault kit from the earlier crime languished on a shelf for 11 months before being tested, delaying an arrest that could have prevented Fletcher’s murder.
A trial for the suspect, Cleotha Abston, is scheduled for April.
TBI for years has struggled to keep pace with the flow of DNA and other evidence testing submitted by local law enforcement to one of three state laboratories. Only Nashville law enforcement does its own testing; local police forces in the state’s other 94 counties submit evidence to TBI.
Lawmakers last year approved the hiring of 50 new forensic positions at the agency to increase testing times; thus far, TBI has hired 46, according to its latest quarterly report.
TBI Director David Rausch last month requested even more hires: The agency is seeking a $33 million budget boost next year to add 25 more lab positions and increase pay to bring the wait time down even further, Rausch detailed in a December budget request to Gov. Bill Lee.
The agency also received a $1.85 million federal grant to temporarily outsource testing to a Florida lab, loading 550 sexual assault kits taken from Tennessee victims onto a TBI plane to Deerfield Beach in March and 308 in July. Those tests have been completed and returned to Tennessee. An additional 50 tests that have been outsourced have a January 31 deadline to be returned to the state, according to a TBI spokesperson.
While outsourcing has helped decrease turnaround times, TBI staff must still review the outsourced results, upload them into a database, search results for a possible match and report the results back to local law enforcement, TBI noted.
Hundreds of outsourced rape kits and other sexual offense evidence have been returned to Tennessee, but remain at local laboratories pending TBI’s final entries of the evidence, including 144 pending in at the Jackson lab, 103 pending in Knoxville and 18 pending in TBI’s Nashville lab.
_ Anita Wadhwani