In a statement provided Tuesday to The Tennessee Star, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) said it followed standard procedure on securing and testing a sexual assault kit (SAK) in a case related to Cleotha Abston, who is also accused of kidnapping and murdering Eliza Fletcher.

The following is part of TBI’s statement:

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.

Abston is accused of kidnapping and raping an unknown victim in September of 2021.

But the SAK from that case was not expedited to the TBI by Memphis Police, and thus entered the normal queue for processing such kits.

The SAK was stored as evidence in the unsolved crime file until June 24 of this year, according to TBI. That’s when it was pulled for processing. TBI says the initial results came back on August 29, and were entered into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), a national database that compares DNA testing results to the DNA of convicted criminals on file.

Purely coincidentally, that data returned a match for Abston on September 5, just days after Fletcher’s kidnapping and days before Abston’s arrest in the Fletcher case.

Had the SAK been expedited by the Memphis Police Department (MPD) to TBI, it is possible that Abston would have been behind bars much sooner, and that Fletcher’s kidnapping and murder could have been avoided. Still, it appears that MPD had no reason to expedite the kit.

TBI says it is significantly backlogged:

The Jackson Crime Lab’s average turnaround times for SAKs ranged from approximately 33 weeks to 49 weeks between September 2021 and August 2022. The length of time to work these cases is attributed to the workload of the four scientists assigned to this unit. These forensic scientists work every biological evidence submission, ranging from homicides to SAKs, to robberies, assaults, and break-ins. In 2021, that included 602 evidence submissions.  These scientists are also responsible for responding to crime scenes when necessary and testifying in every court hearing and trial associated with their casework.

It is working to address the backlog issue.

“We certainly recognize the profound challenges related to the volume of SAKs requiring this in-depth analysis and implemented an effort, from June through September, to focus our limited resources in this area, to reduce turnaround times by assigning scientists to prioritize these cases.”

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Pete D’Abrosca is a reporter at The Tennessee Star and The Star News Network. Follow Pete on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected].
Background Photo “Tennessee Bureau of Investigation” by Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.