NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee is outsourcing the testing of at least 550 rape kits to a private Florida lab through a $1.5 million federal grant, the state’s lead investigative agency announced Monday in a move aimed at reducing processing times that have drawn scrutiny.
In a news release, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said the state awarded a contract to DNA Labs International in Deerfield Beach, Florida, after a competitive bid process that began in December. The agency said it plans to submit up to 1,000 rape kits if more grant funding becomes available by the end of the year, at a cost of $2,155 per kit.
“With the help of the Governor’s administration and the Tennessee General Assembly, we’re continuing to take steps to improve our Forensic Services Division,” TBI Director David Rausch said in the release. “This outsourcing project helps us take an immediate step, as we continue to discuss longer-term fixes.”
The state’s turnaround times for sexual assault kits entered the spotlight after the high-profile killing of teacher Eliza Fletcher in September. 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.
As of October, the agency said the average turnaround time for a rape kit was 43 weeks at the Knoxville lab, 42.4 weeks at the Jackson lab and 32.7 weeks at the Nashville lab.
The agency has attributed the delays to staffing woes and low pay that complicates recruiting and keeping scientists, in addition to other professionals. Funding for new staff positions announced in September and for pay raises is included in Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s budget proposal, which is working its way through the Legislature. Lawmakers have proposed other changes, as well.
Rausch in September highlighted other plans for the agency to reduce turnaround times, saying he his aim was to reduce them to eight to 12 weeks for all evidence within a year. Some efforts include: offering overtime for lab workers; operating the labs on weekends; and contracting with retired TBI workers to help provide training so current scientists can shift time spent training employees to more case work.
Lee announced in September that he and lawmakers were fast-tracking funding to hire an 25 additional forensic lab positions. The agency had requested 40 more special agent/forensic scientist positions and 10 more technicians in the budget that is now in effect, but Lee and lawmakers initially funded half that amount. Some of the new agency lab positions are aimed at DNA, while others are focused on other tasks, from toxicology to forensic chemistry.
Under the new contract, DNA Labs International will provide analysis and any related courtroom testimony. TBI scientists must review the results of analysis for each kit under FBI guidelines and, if warranted, will enter resulting DNA profiles into the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS.
TBI said it was flying 550 kits to the Florida lab on Monday, including 250 from the Jackson Crime Laboratory, 250 from Knoxville and 50 from Nashville. The Jackson lab processes rape kits from Memphis, where Fletcher was killed.
Days after Cleotha Henderson 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.
Fletcher, a mother of two and kindergarten teacher, disappeared on Sept. 2.
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.