Editor's note: This guest opinion column discusses the subject of sexual assault. According to the author, her case was handled at various times by both the Memphis Police Department and the Shelby County Sheriff's Department. If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, help is out there. The National Sexual Assault Hotline is available 24/7. Call 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.
The story is heartbreaking, infuriating, and all-too-familiar.
When I was 16, a stranger broke into my home, waited for me to come home from school, and raped me at knifepoint. Terrified and traumatized, I immediately reported the attack to authorities, who were skeptical of my account and hostile toward me.
I submitted to a lengthy, invasive, and humiliating forensic exam, where every inch of my body was swabbed, combed, brushed, and photographed. I couldn’t identify the man who attacked me – he wore a ski mask and covered my head with a blanket – but I thought evidence from my rape kit would.
Instead, police never bothered to investigate my claims or send my rape kit for any testing. Over the next nine years, the man who had stalked and raped me attacked at least six more women and girls, including a 12-year-old girl two days after me.
Sadly, my story is an all too familiar one
The Memphis community — and the entire country — was rattled by the horrific kidnapping and murder of Eliza Fletcher just a few weeks ago. What hasn’t been widely reported is that in September 2021, a woman told police that the alleged perpetrator, Cleotha Abston-Henderson, had kidnapped and raped her.
While authorities did submit the rape kit for testing in a timely manner, it was never tested until a couple of weeks ago. And last year, police failed to act on additional evidence – the victim gave detectives Abston’s phone number, his home address, his social media handle, and a description of his car – that could have solved the case then. Instead, Abston-Henderson was free to roam around the community and eventually commit this brutal kidnapping and murder because the rape kit went untested.
Years after my own rape, I’m still left asking: where is the accountability?
Police will tell you there is a “backlog” of untested rape kits, implying that it is unavoidable, or happening despite their best intentions. The truth is, these rape cases are often ignored, rape kits and other forensic evidence sit on shelves collecting dust, and victims sit waiting for justice.
Following Fletcher's horrific murder, law enforcement voices and certain politicians are calling for tougher and longer penalties, and asking for more money and power. But we can’t prevent future crimes by throwing more money at a system that hasn’t worked. If we want to prevent future crimes, we must focus on solving current ones.
Rewarding MPD for failure
The Memphis Police Department receives 40% of the city’s operating budget, but police are closing just 18.3% of rape cases, 10.3% of forcible sodomy cases, and 13.9% of cases of sexual assault with an object. For all crimes against a person in Memphis, just 23.2% result in arrest.
In fact, vanishingly few crimes are being solved by the Memphis Police Department, and the ones that are tell you a lot about their priorities. More than 89% of reported drug violations result in arrest, along with 91% of drug equipment violations.
Last year, that was 28,364 unsolved crimes against a person in Memphis alone. How many of these perpetrators are able to commit multiple crimes--like Cleotha Abston-Henderson?
How many unnecessary victims has Tennessee created by their failure to test rape kits or investigate violent offenses?
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can demand accountability from prosecutors, law enforcement, and our legislative leaders.
We can mandate that resources be reasonably allocated to investigating and solving violent crimes, instead of drug offenses.
We can require that they take sexual assault cases seriously.
We owe it to Eliza Fletcher and thousands more like her to change the system that failed them, not double down on that failure.
Meaghan Ybos is the founder of the Memphis-based criminal justice reform advocacy group People for the Enforcement of Rape Laws (PERL).
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: After Eliza Fletcher's murder, authorities don't have priorities right