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Eliza Fletcher case: Tennessee hiring forensic analysts after Memphis mom's murder exposes rape kit backlog

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) on Thursday announced efforts to hire 25 new forensic analysts in the wake of a rape kit backlog highlighted by Memphis kindergarten teacher Eliza Fletcher’s murder.

Cleotha Henderson, the 38-year-old Memphis man charged with kidnapping and killing Fletcher while she was on an early-morning jog earlier this month, was later linked to another previously unsolved abduction and sexual assault from 2021. Officials believe Fletcher’s slaying could have been avoided if the first case was processed in a timely manner.

“For several years, Tennessee has made historic investments to support the TBI’s mission so that law enforcement can do its job and combat violent crime. As our nation faces rising crime, we are taking this additional step to eliminate bureaucratic hurdles, increase the TBI’s capacity and reduce testing turnaround times as quickly as possible,” Lee said in a Thursday statement. 

The 25 new positions on the forensic team include scientists, technicians and administrative support in TBI’s Jackson Lab, Nashville Lab and Knoxville Lab, the governor announced. TBI will start filling the first positions in the coming weeks.

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Photo released by Canale Funeral Directors shows Eliza Fletcher, her husband and her children.

Photo released by Canale Funeral Directors shows Eliza Fletcher, her husband and her children.
(Canale Funeral Directors)

“We have been searching for solutions to these challenges for several years now, and we are thankful for Governor Lee and leaders of both houses in continuing to hear our concerns and work with us toward permanent fixes,” TBI Director David Rausch said in a statement.

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Rausch added that TBI and Tennessee leaders have also come up with other solutions to improve turnaround times within FBI’s Forensic Biology units.

An autopsy released Thursday determined that Fletcher died of a gunshot wound to the head after she was kidnapped. 

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Henderson was previously convicted of kidnapping, rape and aggravated assault when he was released from prison in 2020 after serving 20 years of a 24-year sentence, court records show. 

Left: Eliza Fletcher in a photo released by Memphis Police. Right: Cleotha Abston appears in court for his arraignment Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022.

Left: Eliza Fletcher in a photo released by Memphis Police. Right: Cleotha Abston appears in court for his arraignment Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022.
(Memphis Police Department, Adam Sabes/Fox News Digital)

In a Sept. 13 statement, a TBI spokesperson told Fox News that the bureau had received evidence in Henderson’s alleged 2021 assault back in September of that year, nearly 12 months earlier, but had received no request to expedite the testing. As a result, the sample went into a lengthy queue and was not revisited until June 2022 – nine months later. Initial results came back on Aug. 29, just days before Henderson would allegedly attack Fletcher, a mother of two, during her morning jog on Central Avenue near the University of Memphis.

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“From there, a scientist entered the resulting unknown male DNA profile into CODIS (the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System), which returned a match on Monday, Sept. 5, for Cleotha Abston [Henderson] in connection to the September 2021 assault, after which TBI reported the finding to Memphis Police,” Keli McAlister, a TBI public information officer, previously told Fox News.

Crime scene tape in the search for Eliza Fletcher

Crime scene tape in the search for Eliza Fletcher
(Matt Symons for Fox News Digital)

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Fletcher’s case highlighted the backlog, prompting local leaders to call for an increase in law enforcement personnel to assist with such investigations.

Henderson faces two counts of especially aggravated kidnapping, one count of aggravated rape, two counts of theft, first degree murder, unlawful carrying or possession of a weapon, identity theft, tampering with evidence and fraudulent use of a credit/debit card.

Fox News’ Adam Sabes, Laura Ingle, Michael Ruiz and Stephanie Pagones contributed to this report.

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