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Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., says she is “concerned” about a rape kit backlog in Tennessee that came to light after the abduction and murder of Memphis teacher and mother Eliza Fletcher.
Blackburn and fellow Tennessee Republican Sen. Bill Hagerty on Wednesday introduced the “Restoring Law and Order Act,” which aims to provide more federal funding to local and state police, among other ways to combat violent crime and make the investigative process more efficient to keep repeat offenders off the street.
“What we’re seeking to do is help law enforcement combat the violent crime in their communities and be able to hire more detectives and officers,” Blackburn told Fox News Digital in a Wednesday interview. “And … we’re working on the funding that is left over [from COVID-19] to be used for making these communities safe.”
Blackburn said the bill includes a “two-year study on rape kit testing.”
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“We’ve been concerned that these rape kits are being returned at a very slow pace to the local law enforcement entities,” the senator said. “And the criminals who committed violent sexual assaults need to be apprehended. They need to be locked up. They need to be off the streets.”
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) told Fox News Digital in a Sept. 10 statement that the bureau had received evidence in Eliza Fletcher murder suspect Cleotha Henderson’s alleged September 2021 assault, nearly 12 months ago, but had received no request to expedite the testing.
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As a result, the sample went into a long queue and was not revisited until June 2022 – nine months later. Initial results came back on Aug. 29, just days before Henderson would allegedly attacked Fletchera mother of two, during her morning jog on Central Avenue near the University of Memphis.
“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 in connection to the September 2021 assault, after which TBI reported the finding to Memphis Police,” Keli McAlister, a TBI public information officer, told Fox News over the weekend.
That was three days after the attack on Fletcher.
TBI’s Jackson Crime Lab, which handled the investigation, has an average turnaround of between 33 and 49 weeks, she said, describing it as a result of the workload placed on just four scientists staffing in the unit.
Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton said in a statement that local politicians are “willing to continue to add personnel to speed this up because a 350-day or 50-week backlog is atrocious. And so we have to do better.”
Blackburn said she has been in contact with Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland to discuss violent crime in Memphis and what can be done to curb it. Strickland, in a Sept. 9 weekly update, detailed six different institutions that must work to help the city’s violent crime problem other than the mayor’s office, including parents and families, schools, criminal courts, juvenile courts, state law and federal law.
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“Federal law governs criminal sentencing and imprisonment in federal courts. Generally, federal sentences are stiffer than state sentences, particularly for gun crimes. The challenge is the US Attorney’s limited resources to prosecute a large number of those cases. For instance, the US Attorney’s office in West Tennessee can prosecute between 200 and 250 gun cases per year, while we presented to the office recently about 4,000 cases that meet federal standards,” Strickland wrote.
Ezekiel Kelley, a Memphis man accused of gunning down a friend and six other innocent people in a shooting spree last week, was previously charged with two counts of attempted murder and another of reckless endangerment for a 2020 shooting, and pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of aggravated assault and served just 11 months of a three-year sentence in a county detention center.
“This administration could step up and take some actions that would help with… getting these dangerous repeat offenders off the streets and making certain that the Department of Justice maximizes the resources that are devoted to getting these violent criminals that are in possession of firearms,” Blackburn said. “And they should exercise that authority that they have.”
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The Tennessee senator added that the Restoring Law and Order Act aims to combat child trafficking and fentanyl-related crimes, and increase work with TBI “so they have the ability to move forward and investigate these crimes and push through the process to get these criminals into court and get convictions.”
She and Hagerty were joined by Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Mike Braun of Indiana, John Kennedy of Louisiana and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin to announce the bill at a Wednesday press conference. The senators pointed to President Biden, progressive bail policies from local prosecutors, and the “defund” police movement dating back to 2020 as reasons behind an increase in violent crime in various major American cities over the past two years.
Fox News’ Michael Ruiz and Laura Ingle contributed to this report.