A special state committee Friday approved a recommendation that New York State adopt the use of familial searching, an emerging DNA procedure employed in some states to identify potential suspects.
By a vote of 5-0, the DNA subcommittee of the New York State Commission on Forensic Science approved the plan to use familial searching, proposals that have been in the works since the beginning of the year. Under proposed guidelines, special DNA analysis will be allowed in cases of homicide, rape, arson and crimes involving “a significant public safety threat.”
The measure now goes to the full commission, which could vote on it next month. Familial searching is supported by the New York City’s five district attorneys, as well as NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill.
Familial searching is a two-step process in which an unidentified DNA sample that doesn’t match any genetic profile in the state database is given further analysis to see if it bears any similarities with known profiles. If similarities are found, the unknown sample’s Y-chromosome is further analyzed to come up with a likely relative of the unidentified person. Police will then locate the relative and possibly get a fresh DNA sample to compare it to what was found at the crime scene.
Though controversial, familial searching is now used in 10 states, including California and Colorado, as well as in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. It has led to the solving of a number of cold case homicides. The method gained attention in New York after the August strangulation death of Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano. Investigators recovered an unidentified DNA sample from the 30-year-old’s body but couldn’t match it to any genetic sample in the state DNA database.
Vetrano’s family and law enforcement realized the usefulness of familial searching and lobbied for its use in New York State. However, conventional police work led to the February arrest of a man in the Vetrano case.
Critics, notably some civil libertarians and members of the defense bar, oppose familial searching on privacy grounds. They also believe that many of the DNA profiles already in the state database are from defendants of color and that familial searching would amount to genetic trolling that unfairly investigates black and Hispanic families.
But proponents of familial searching say the method is race neutral and would be involved in only a small number of cases. They also note that most of the victims of violent crimes, particularly in New York City, are black and Hispanic. Data from NYPD sources revealed earlier this year that in 2016 of the 11 unsolved homicides with DNA samples that couldn’t be matched, nine of the victims were black and one Hispanic.