Thousands of Tennessee victims now get real-time updates on sexual assault evidence
For years, lengthy delays in testing sexual assault kits left victims in limbo — unable to learn whether evidence that passes from nurses to police to labs and back has made it through the system or slipped through the cracks.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation now reports a new database giving victims real time updates on sexual assault evidence is fully operational, logging 3,036 kits since going online in July of last year.
The agency has yet to train all of the state’s 600 law enforcement agencies in the new database, a web portal that requires police, hospitals and laboratories to log dates to mark the path of a rape kit throughout the chain of command.
But Donna Nelson, a TBI crime lab regional supervisor based in Jackson who spearheaded implementation of the so-called SAMS-Track system, said lab personnel ensure that each time an officer brings a kit to a state labs without having entered it into the database, training is immediately offered at the lab. Thus far, 248 law enforcement agencies have submitted kits using the SAMS-Track system since the 2022 law creating the database.
“In my personal opinion, this has been a success,” Nelson said. “We’re just encouraging victims to report their crimes and know that we’re here and we are doing our absolute best to make sure their kits are processed in a timely manner.”
The tracking system is among a series of recent efforts to improve the state’s approach to processing of sexual assault evidence.
While advocates have fought for years for greater accountability and timeliness in the processing of kits, the high-profile 2022 death of 34-year-old kindergarten teacher Eliza Fletcher brought widespread public attention to lengthy delays that had become routine, preventing arrests of suspects and justice for victims.
The man charged in Fletcher’s death was also charged with the sexual assault of a woman in 2021. A backlog in rape kit testing delayed his identification and arrest for the earlier crime until after Fletcher’s death.
The backlog has improved, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director David Rausch noted last month in a budget presentation to Gov. Bill Lee. The average turnaround time for forensic testing of rape evidence is now about 18 weeks, compared to 45 weeks a year ago.
The same law creating SAMS-Track also provides other guardrails for sexual assault evidence: it requires law enforcement to pick up sexual assault kits within 48 hours and enter rape kit evidence information into the tracking system within 10 days. The law also requires notification to victims of a DNA match and gives victims the right to receive a copy of the complete forensic analysis of their sexual assault kit.