Could Tennessee teacher's murder have been prevented? Police face scrutiny over rape kit delay

Eliza Fletcher's alleged killer should have been behind bars due to another alleged crime he had committed, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) says.

Updated: September 16, 2022 - 11:07pm

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The revelation that the accused killer of kindergarten teacher Eliza Fletcher fell through the cracks because police failed to process evidence in a year-old rape case has roiled Tennessee politics and led to new legislation to clear crime lab backlogs. 

Cleotha Henderson, 38, a prior convicted felon, was charged with Fletcher's murder last week and is being held without bond. He also appeared in court Thursday on charges of kidnapping and aggravated rape in an earlier case after a long-delayed rape kit was processed, the Commercial Appeal reported.

The Memphis Police and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation acknowledge the rape kit from the earlier case had not been processed for a year, blaming crime lab backlogs and bureaucracy for the delay.

Political leaders aren't satisfied with the explanations, saying Fletcher might still be alive had the rape kit been processed sooner.

"The alleged assailant of that rape a year ago is the alleged individual that killed Eliza Fletcher," Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said. "He should be behind bars. She should be alive today."

Fletcher was out on an early morning jog near the University of Memphis on Sept. 2 when she was abducted and killed, according to authorities. Her body was found three days later near the "rear of a vacant duplex apartment," Fox News reports. 

Her case has drawn national attention as a symbol of the the surge of senseless violence sweeping big Democrat cities.

"The American people are trying to break through with their message to Washington, D.C. that crime is out of control," Blackburn said on the Wednesday edition of "Just the News, Not Noise." "Communities are not safe. People are worried that they are living in Joe Biden's America where they can't go out for an early morning run."

The delay in the rape kit processing has only heightened the sense of tragedy and outrage in the case.

The rape kit from 2021 was submitted to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations by Memphis Police, but the police didn't ask TBI to expedite it, which is why it took so long to come out, according to local television station 3WREG.

In a statement to Just the News, TBI said:

"On Sunday, September 4th, during the active investigation into the abduction of Eliza Fletcher, TBI was made aware by the Memphis Police Department of a sexual assault kit submission that might be linked to an unrelated open MPD investigation into a sexual assault that occurred in September of 2021 in which Cleotha Abston may have been a suspect. Memphis Police submitted the SAK on September 23, 2021, and the evidence was put into the queue of unknown assailant kits, as no request was made for TBI analysis to be expedited, and no suspect information or DNA standard was included in the submission. 

"The TBI accepts rush DNA cases when requested by a local investigative agency, as we did in the recent Eliza Fletcher case. Last weekend, the work of our scientists identified Cleotha Abston as the suspect less than 18 hours after receiving key evidence, which was critical in his subsequent apprehension. Because we rarely know the facts of the case when processing evidence, TBI relies on submitting agencies to identify cases that would benefit their investigation from our rush analysis."

Memphis Police did not respond to a request from Just the News. But Chief CJ Davis explained to a City Council meeting this week that her department needed additional approval to get an expedited rape kit processed.

"That request has a signature also from the DA's office saying this meets the criteria that we put a rush on it, I'd like to put a rush on all our cases," she said.

"The problem is we're just one cog in the wheel," she added. "TBI takes in not just our rape kit evidence, they take in all my forensic evidence, we're basically in line with the rest of the state waiting to receive results." 

Blackburn said "soft on crime policies" need to end and that her new "Restoring Law and Order Act" will address a lot of these issues, including how to lessen crime lab backlogs. 

"We're looking at funding more officers," Blackburn explained. "We are looking at a GAO study on these rape kits. We are making certain that there are provisions for dealing with these drug crimes, primarily the drug deaths that result from fentanyl."