Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.
The killing of 34-year-old Eliza Fletcher, a teacher and mother of two in Memphis who was abducted while on her morning run, has stunned and outraged not just her community, but the country. Her family and friends have spoken about what a shining light Fletcher was, with her devastated family saying in a statement that she was “a joy to so many.” Female runners have united around Fletcher’s death, insisting on the right to jog while female and holding eight-mile runs in her honor in multiple cities – with some participants singing “This Little Light of Mine,” a song Fletcher sang to her young students.
But her family’s tragedy has, troublingly, turned into a pet cause for right-wing agitators who seek to incorporate it into bigoted storylines about crime in American cities. The 38-year-old man accused of killing Fletcher, Cleotha Henderson, had a long criminal record beginning when he was just 11 and spent 19 years in prison for an aggravated kidnapping (a charge to which he pleaded guilty) before being released in November 2020. The same week that Fletcher was killed, another man with a criminal record, Ezekiel Kelly, allegedly shot multiple people in a spree that left four dead, three injured and an already-grieving city on temporary lockdown.
Both men have been charged with multiple crimes, and according to local news reports, both men, who are also Black, were released from prison before serving their full sentences for previous violent crimes. As a result, Fletcher’s killing – and the city trying to cope with multiple tragedies – have become synonymous on the right with racist narratives of urban decline and a re-energized call for longer prison sentences and a harsher “law and order” crackdown.
This is a distraction. In reality, Fletcher’s case points to one pervasive failure of the state and of law enforcement: The utter failure nationwide to adequately analyze rape kits and report the results.
In Fletcher’s case, authorities have DNA evidence they say ties Henderson to her killing. Henderson’s DNA also been tied to a rape in 2021, police say, and he was indicted Thursday on charges of aggravated rape, kidnapping and unlawful possession of a weapon in connection with that incident.
The rape kit from that 2021 attack, however, sat untested at the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI). A match was not made to Henderson in the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) until September 5, 2022 – nearly a year after the kit was submitted to TBI.
At that point, Fletcher was already dead.
And Fletcher’s death was the reason that the year-old rape kit was even tested at all. After the kit was submitted on September 23, 2021, “the evidence was put into the queue of unknown assailant kits,” TBI said in a statement to CNN, “as no request was made for TBI analysis to be expedited, and no suspect information or DNA standard was included in the submission.”
By contrast, in the Fletcher case, the police made an expedited request. And according to TBI, “Last weekend, the work of our scientists identified Henderson as the suspect less than 18 hours after receiving key evidence, which was critical in his subsequent apprehension.”
While that quick turnaround is certainly good for this case, it’s chilling to realize that Fletcher might be alive today if another woman’s rape kit had been tested more quickly.
According to TBI, “The Jackson Crime Lab’s average turnaround times for [sexual assault kits] ranged from approximately 33 weeks to 49 weeks between September 2021 and August 2022.” That means that sexual assault survivors are waiting, on average, nearly a year not even for justice, but to even possibly identify their assailants. In the meantime, these men can continue to rape and assault others.
While Black and White women face similar rates of sexual assault nationwide as of 2019, Black women in Tennessee were about 1.5 times as likely as White Tennessee women to be sexually assaulted
Tennessee’s massive backlog of sexual assault kits? Each one represents one of the most horrific days of a woman’s life; each one represents her fortitude and strength in the face of a sickening violation; each one represents a woman’s effort to not have what happened to her happen to anyone else.
And each kit sitting in that backlog represents the failure of the state to secure justice for the women who tried to get it. Each kit sitting in that backlog represents the failure of the state to protect every person in Tennessee – and young women especially – who were left vulnerable to utterly preventable violence.
Rape kits linger for one reason: Resources. It’s simply unconscionable that some kits are given priority for testing over others, based on whether the police put in a rush request. No woman should have to wait months or years for a result after submitting to a rape exam – an invasion in itself following such a violent act, and an act of profound trust extended by women in their most vulnerable moments. Whether a woman sees justice shouldn’t depend on how well-connected she is, or how much public outrage her case engenders, or how worthy police deem her of attention.
If Tennessee tested its sexual assault kits in a reasonable amount of time, it’s reasonable to posit that Fletcher might still be alive.
It’s easy, in moments like this one, to call for longer sentences or harsher law enforcement. But Henderson did serve a long sentence – nearly two decades behind bars is hardly a slap on the wrist. State intervention dedicated to preventing crime may be more effective than our current strategy, which has given us both the largest prison population in the history of the world, and one of the highest rates of violent crime among wealthy industrialized nations. If mass incarceration was the solution to crime, the US would be the safest place on the planet. Instead, it is appallingly violent.
What is clear is that the system failed when it came to Henderson, who entered it when he was still a child, and it seems to have failed again decades later, when Henderson allegedly raped a woman but faced no consequences, because her sexual assault kit wasn’t tested.
One of many problems with the US criminal justice system is a phenomenally poor allocation of resources. While states and the federal government spend into the millions on each death row inmate, they cry poverty when it comes to paying for the personnel and facilities to adequately conduct DNA testing, including of sexual assault kits. And this is far from an exclusively Tennessean problem: Hundreds of thousands of sexual assault kits are currently sitting untested in labs and evidence storage facilities across the US.
The solution is obvious: Crime labs need enough staff to test these kits, and these kits should be traced and tracked through all levels of law enforcement to make sure none slip through the cracks. And that costs money. If states want to prevent subsequent assaults – and after one sexual assault, many sexual assailants do go on to attack others – one of the most effective things they can do is fund crime labs and institute clear systems of accountability for testing sexual assault kits.
I hope that Fletcher’s family is able to find peace and get justice, even if nothing can ever heal the wound left by her murder. But I hope, too, that every woman whose name attaches to some ID number on a test tube in a Tennessee lab gets the justice she deserves, too – even if her case isn’t in the media, and even if we never know her name.