Cleotha Henderson, the Memphis man charged with kidnapping and killing a jogging teacher earlier this month – then later linked to another abduction from nearly a year ago, could’ve been behind bars at the time of both attacks under a new Tennessee law that came into effect earlier this year.
The 38-year-old felon had previous convictions for 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.
Henderson, also known as Cleotha Abston, is accused of forcing 34-year-old Eliza “Liza” Fletcher into an SUV during her pre-dawn run on Sept. 2. Police found her dead behind a vacant home days later.
“If our truth in sentencing bill had been in effect back then, for 100% sentencing, he wouldn’t have been out,” Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton told Fox News Digital Tuesday. “If he served the full 24 years, we would have two less victims, and one would not be dead.”
And Fletcher’s slaying could potentially have been avoided if Henderson had been identified earlier as a suspect in a previously unsolved sex assault.
In a statement Saturday, 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 ago, but had received no request to expedite the testing. As a result, the sample went into a lengthy queue 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.
We 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.
“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.
While she did not give a specific figure for the rape kit testing backlog, she said each of the state’s crime labs have been receiving requests for between five and seven cases a month stretching back to July 2019.
Shelby County, where Henderson’s alleged attacks took place, submitted 316 sexual assault testing requests last year, according to state records – by far the most out of any county in Tennessee. Knox County had the next most requests, with 168.
The Jackson Forensic Biology Unit is expected to add three more scientists at the end of next month.
In its last budget cycle, TBI said it requested funding for another 40 positions in its Forensic Services Unit, and received approval for half of that, McAlister told Fox News Digital Tuesday.
Of the 20 approved positions, eight new hires will be dedicated to forensic biology and DNA testing across the state, including three in the Jackson laboratory.
That almost doubles the current staff in Jackson, and next year authorities hope to add at least two more.
But an outside recommendation from the West Virginia University Department of Business called for 71 new hires total.
In addition to sexual assault cases, state forensic biologists work all sorts of investigations involving DNA testing, including burglaries, robberies and homicides. Outside the lab, they are also responsible for testifying in court and responding to crime scenes.
“Given the demands of the job, these personnel must be highly competent, highly trained, and of the highest moral character,” McAlister said. “In Forensic Biology, new employees must meet the educational requirements of both the TBI and FBI, [and] must undergo 18 months of training.”
Gov. Bill Lee’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Sexton, a Republican, said the Truth in Sentencing law would have also kept Memphis shooting spree suspect Ezekiel Kelly behind bars longer and called the 50-week rape kit backlog “atrocious.” He said that the goal is to reduce kit processing to just 30 days.
“Every day that you wait only emboldens the criminal to commit more crimes on more victims because they’re not in jail – and it increases the pain and suffering of the victims,” he said. “What you should strive for is swift punishment, and in order to do that, we need to give law enforcement the resources.”
In addition to the SAK backlog, he said, other testing could also be bogged down.
“When we talk about funding law enforcement, we talk about police officers and equipment, but we never really talk about giving them enough resources to turn around evidence,” he added.
In cases like Fletcher’s it could be the difference between life and death.
Fox News’ Laura Ingle contributed to this report.