Judge to weigh if rape kit lawsuit against Memphis can be class action

Now that attorneys have argued the final motions, sexual assault survivors will wait at least two more weeks before Shelby County Circuit Court Judge Gina Higgins decides whether Janet Doe v City of Memphis will move forward as a class action suit.

Higgins heard four motions in the lawsuit on Thursday and Friday alleging the Memphis Police Department's mishandling of thousands of rape kits over the years. Headlining those motions is a request for summary judgement, the request for the case to proceed to trial as a class action suit, and a motion from the city to exclude the testimony of retired sex crimes detective Cody Wilkerson.

Higgins said time was needed after attorneys for the city and plaintiffs to deliver some of their arguments in favor of their motions and against the others'.

It's yet one more period of waiting for victims of sexual assault; some have been waiting for decades for justice in their cases. And when they found out critical evidence was discarded, waited years more for the lawsuit to move through the court system. The suit was filed in 2014.

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After arguments for the final motions were heard, victims spilled into the hallways of the Shelby County Circuit Court, unable to hold back tears and their collective anger.

"My attack happened in 1985," said Debby Dalhoff. "When I submitted my rape kit, when I had to go through the process of getting my rape kit ready... there should have been a purpose for that. Want to know where my rape kit is? Mine was put in a landfill. A landfill."

Dahloff on Friday invoked the death of Eliza Fletcher as an example of how MPD has enabled more crimes to occur by devaluing rape investigations.

The suspect in Fletcher's slaying, Cleotha Abston, was also suspected of assaulting and raping a young mother, Alicia Franklin in September, 2021. The rape kit from Franklin's case was not tested until around the time of Fletcher's disappearance.

Franklin is also suing the City of Memphis for their handling of her rape investigation.

Dalhoff said she has been calm and collected for the years this lawsuit has been pending. But on Friday, she said, the anger had arrived.

"If this doesn't make it to class action," Dalhoff said, "boy the city better get ready."

In some instances, the suit contends, evidence of neglected rape kits stem as far back as the 1980s. Memphis police did ultimately erase a deficit of more than 12,000 rape kits after disclosing the number in 2013.

Celia Reynolds is one of the women who was raped in 1983, but she said she never saw an effort by police to find the perpetrator.

During the initial questioning following the assault, Reynolds said police implied she must have been a sex worker — she was attacked on Brooks Road. In 1983, the area was known as a stretch of road where sex workers often gather.

"I was on my way to my job at Smith & Nephew. I was dropped off on Brooks Road, and I was attacked in what used to be an open field. The police wanted to know why I was on Brooks Road more than anything else," Reynolds said.

Cody Wilkerson's testimony critical to plaintiff's case

Among the motions Higgins has fielded is one from the City of Memphis to exclude the testimony of Wilkerson, a retired sex crimes detective. In 2017, Wilkerson described rampant neglect and indifference in the sex crimes within the unit.

Attorneys for the city argued that Wilkerson had no direct knowledge of Janet Doe's case, which rendered his testimony irrelevant.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs countered that point by saying Wilkerson worked within the unit in charge of sex crimes and was appointed to oversee the backlog of rape kits. His expertise and proximity to sex crimes unit more than qualifies his testimony as relevant, the plaintiff said.

Wilkerson's testimony could be pivotal if the lawsuit moves forward. In 2017, Wilkerson testified that the sex crimes unit's negligence continued well after DNA testing became a standard practice.

The defense is likely to argue there was no standard process for turning over rape kits to labs for further testing before Memphis police had the capability of running results through CODIS, a computer software program that operates local, state, and national databases of DNA profiles from convicted offenders and other evidence connected to unsolved crimes.

With no standard protocols, the defense said, the city qualifies for immunity under discretionary function — a law that allows for government entities, in this case the Memphis police, to decide how the task at hand should be conducted.

Micaela Watts is a reporter for The Commercial Appeal covering access and equity. She can be reached at micaela.watts@commercialappeal.com.

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Judge to weigh if rape kit lawsuit against Memphis can be class action