Eliza Fletcher case highlights problem of rape kit backlog

NewsNation PRIME

(NewsNation) — The killing of Eliza Fletcher is putting a spotlight on the backlog of sexual assault evidence kits in Tennessee following the revelation that the suspect in Fletcher’s murder was identified as the alleged perpetrator in a 2021 rape.

A recently tested evidence kit from a case in September 2021 was connected to Cleotha Abston, the man charged with kidnapping and killing Fletcher earlier this month. The DNA match came back the same day Fletcher’s body was found behind an abandoned house in South Memphis.

According to Memphis police, a sexual assault report was taken Sept. 21, 2021. The sexual assault evidence kit was submitted to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation two days later. The TBI has said the standard processing time for an evidence kit is 33 to 49 weeks.

Deborah Clubb, executive director of the Memphis Area Women’s Council, said Tuesday on “NewsNation Prime” that state legislators need to provide more resources to the TBI to allow for faster processing of the evidence kits.

“The legislature has done some work to beef up the TBI budget, but we need, literally, another lab or a much larger lab to help with the volume of crime incidents that Memphis has,” Clubb said. “As you can imagine, those scientists not only have to investigate and process the material from our rape cases, but also from murders, kidnappings, aggravated assaults and all sorts of other crimes. They’ve just got too much to do.”

In her work on a Memphis task force, Clubb helped clear a historic backlog of evidence kits within the Memphis Police Department in 2013 and 2014. But the kits under the control of TBI are still slow to be processed, she said.

“As miserable and awful as it is to think of an 11-month timeline, that’s still better than we were doing when kits sometimes sat in Memphis for years before they were tested,” Clubb said. “Not good is still better.”

The TBI has said the evidence kit from the 2021 case was not submitted with a rush request and thus placed with its standard casework.

Florida State Attorney Dave Aronberg said it’s a tragedy the kit wasn’t tested sooner and should have been prioritized because it was for an “unknown assailant.” Speaking Monday on NewsNation’s “Rush Hour,” Aronberg said there are “no more excuses” for backlogs of sexual assault evidence kits because of federal funds that are available to help process them.

As a victim advocate, Clubb said she often has to warn sexual assault survivors that it could take years to receive justice, which can dissuade some from going all the way through the legal process.

“Some of them simply don’t have the capacity to deal with being retraumatized, retelling what happened and waiting for those years to pass,” Clubb said. “What we need here and across the country is a very differently energized and resourced system to respond to sexual assault so that more people would actually report and stick in the process and not drop out and become one of those cases that becomes closed because the victim is no longer participating.”

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