Democrats vow push to ‘fully fund’ TBI following Memphis violence, lab backlog

During a Memphis campaign stop, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jason Martin also called on the state to fully fund TBI and criticized Republican Gov. Bill Lee and House Republicans for the testing backlog.

Top Tennessee Democrats − including the party’s gubernatorial nominee − on Thursday called on lawmakers to provide the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation with enough funding to process sexual assault evidence in a timely manner.

“We need to fully fund our forensic laboratories,” House Democratic Caucus Chair Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville, said at a news conference in Nashville. “Republicans have preached their truth-in-sentencing laws, but they take no responsibility for lack of funding for TBI.”

Dixie’s comments come after TBI released data showing it takes its crime labs an average of 34 weeks to test sexual assault evidence. 

Authorities say Cleotha Henderson, the Memphis man accused of kidnapping and killing Eliza Fletcher, was linked by DNA evidence to a September 2021 sexual assault. 

The Jackson lab, which processed the sexual assault kit, first tested the evidence in June and didn’t receive results until late August. Days later, Fletcher disappeared on an early morning jog in Memphis on Sept. 2. 

Dixie said he plans to sit down with TBI leadership to discuss what the department needs to reduce those wait times.

“Just this last session, TBI requested funding for 50 forensic scientists,” Dixie said. “They received exactly half.”

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said the TBI process wait times were not acceptable. 

“I know the General Assembly will be supportive of adding more forensic personnel and work on making this process more efficient to reduce times from 350 days to 30 days or even less,” Sexton said in a statement.

Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, continue to highlight that Henderson previously served two decades in prison for another kidnapping. 

Henderson served 20 years of a 24-year sentence. Sexton and McNally said he should not have been released.

The House and Senate leaders led the passage of a “truth-in-sentencing” law earlier this year, which required persons convicted of certain violent offenses to serve 100% of their sentences. 

The list of felonies that required full sentences served was reduced in the final bill compared to the original legislation.

Sexton and McNally created an ad hoc committee to study and recommend possible steps “to provide additional safeguards to protect the public from those who repeatedly violate criminal laws,” following Fletcher’s killing and another shooting spree in Memphis earlier this month. 

Martin pushes for more TBI funding

Meanwhile, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jason Martin, standing on the steps of Shelby County Courthouse with a blindfolded Lady Justice behind him, criticized Gov. Bill Lee and Tennessee House Republicans for the backlog of rape kits at the TBI crime lab.

“Gov. Lee can’t say he’s tough on crime while predators are allowed to walk around our community simply because there’s a backlog at the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation crime labs,” Martin said Thursday afternoon.  “I implore them to put their money where their mouth is. Let’s give the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation The resources that they’ve asked for … so that we start attacking this problem.”

Martin used the backlog to repeat his frequent criticisms of the Lee administration – a lack of Medicare expansion, issues at the Department of Human Services and rural hospital closures.

In the wake of the high-profile crimes in Memphis, Lee has said the state should not be soft on crime but smarter instead. Lee had opposed aspects of the “truth-in-sentencing” bill and allowed it to take effect without his signature.

“There’s a way to do both of those, and I think that’s what we will do going forward,” Lee recently told reporters.

Martin also connected the rape kit backlog to the state’s full abortion ban, which has no exceptions for rape or incest.

“You live in a state where you could be forced to have your rapist’s baby before your rape kit comes back from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation crime lab. That is Gov. Bill Lee’s Tennessee,” Martin said.

Ruby Powell-Dennis, the Democratic nominee for state Senate District 31 in Memphis, also spoke at Martin’s rally Thursday. She said she had been the victim of sexual assault when she was 11 and it had taken years of therapy for her to be willing to talk about it.She said the delays in rape kit testing only compounded victims’ mistrust of government and public officials.

Melissa Brown contributed to this report.

Adam Friedman covers state government and politics. Reach him by email at [email protected]

Samuel Hardiman covers Memphis city government and politics. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or followed on Twitter at @samhardiman.

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