Attorneys representing the city of Memphis are asking a judge to toss out a lawsuit filed by a Black woman who sued the city after local police failed to investigate her rape but processed evidence after a white wealthy woman was killed by the same man.
Officials believe the city’s law enforcement has no “duty” to thoroughly investigate all violent crimes against its citizens — citing a state law that allows police departments to spend their budget how they see fit and not be told how to prioritize duties within the force.
Alicia Franklin’s lawsuit, filed in September, states local police allowed her rapist to go free and ultimately kill another woman, despite her giving them evidence that would have taken the menace off the streets.
Franklin was raped by Cleotha Abston-Henderson in Memphis on Sept. 21, 2021, authorities say, and a year later the same man murdered another woman in the city, police found. DNA revealed Abston as the culprit in both crimes. However, the DNA for Franklin’s assault was not processed until days after Eliza Fletcher, a white heiress to a billion-dollar hardware company fortune died.
Abston-Henderson’s DNA was already in the system. He was a convicted kidnapper.
Gary Smith and Jeff Rosenblum, Franklin’s lawyers, assert that the two women’s cases were not handled equitably by police. Their claim is there is a responsibility and expectation that those who wear the badge are hired to protect and serve, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reports.
Franklin’s lawyers directly tie the Memphis Police Department’s lack of responsiveness to their client’s case to the other woman’s life being placed in jeopardy. The city tells the court Franklin’s case has no merit.
“Although there is no dispute that MPD investigated Plaintiff’s report, Plaintiff pleads that MPD had a duty to investigate her rape in accordance with an undefined ‘reasonable officer’ standard,” states the motion to dismiss filed in early December.
“In doing so, Plaintiff outlines a scheme that would have compelled MPD to perform a myriad of actions she believed MPD should have performed, but that it did not,” the city’s attorneys continued.
After her assault, Franklin gave detectives Abston’s first and last name, his phone number, and information about the dating profile he used to lure her to the Lakes at Ridgeway apartment complex where he violated her.
Those officers responded, but they did not collect any of the evidence she offered.
Lawyers for the city said cops had no general duty to investigate Franklin’s rape, which is why they did not check for fingerprints and did not immediately process her rape kit after the sexual assault.
The kit was eventually processed days after the other woman’s death, revealing his serial connection to both victims.
Despite this, the city argues if the courts were to impose a general duty to investigate on behalf of everyone who reports a crime, the courts would be placing an infringement on Memphis police’s constitutional right “to direct the use of limited police resources.”
“To impose such a duty would subject the city to potential liability whenever a complaining victim is dissatisfied with a police investigation,” the filing stated.
Filed in Shelby County Circuit Court by Attorney Tannera Gibson, the city wants, if the lawsuit cannot be dismissed, all “immaterial, impertinent and scandalous allegations” removed from Franklin’s claim.
Smith and Rosenblum’s retorted that the city’s stance is a show of value for some citizens over others.
“The city says it has no duty to thoroughly investigate serious crimes, perhaps they should consult the citizens they serve about that. The city further says it is scandalous to connect the Alicia Franklin rape and Eliza Fletcher’s murder but we say the scandal was the city’s failure to arrest the rapist and allow him to remain free for a year before he murdered Ms. Fletcher. The city’s protest rings hollow,” Franklin’s attorneys wrote.
It took 18 hours for Memphis police to arrest Abston for Fletcher’s murder. It took over 11 months for police to identify Franklin’s rapist and only after Fletcher’s death.
A spokesperson for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the agency that oversees rape kit processing, states it received the sexual assault kit on Sept. 23, 2021, two days after the assault.
“I was just an average Black girl in the city of Memphis, you know,” Franklin told reporters at the time. “I just think it wasn’t a priority.”
The kit was put in a “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.”
The lawsuit states Franklin looked through a photo lineup of suspects and saw an old picture of Abston but was unsure if it was him because it was dated. She asked officers to provide her with a more recent photo of Abston. She never received it.
Abston is now charged with crimes against both women after DNA samples collected in connection with Fletcher’s case were compared to Franklin’s newly processed samples and returned with a positive identification for the crimes.
The state’s mishandling of rape kits is not a new phenomenon. In another lawsuit, Jane Doe vs. the City of Memphis, filed more than eight years ago, an unidentified woman sued the city for its mishandling of more than 12,000 rape kits gathered from victims of sexual assault.
These kits all went untested. Some of them were actually destroyed.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee fast-tracked the hire of 25 forensic lab workers to go through the thousands of rap kits backlogged in Memphis Police’s storage on Sept. 29 in response to Fletcher’s killing.
Action News 5 reports Judge Mary L. Wagner will preside over the Franklin case and will decide if the complaint is dismissed. A hearing date has not been set for the judge to render her decision on the lawsuit’s progression.