A state forensic commission delayed voting Wednesday on whether to approve a proposal for familial DNA searching in certain criminal cases, deciding instead to send the measures back to a special subcommittee to tighten up the language after some panel members voiced concerns.
The 10 members of the New York State Commission on Forensic Science agreed after a nearly 2 1⁄2-hour discussion that the proposal on the emerging and somewhat controversial DNA procedure needed some additional work, particularly on a section on what “exigent circumstances” had to exist before using the method.
Panel members also wanted language added that would permit defense attorneys to request a familial search in cases where it might exonerate a person.
Familial searching has been pushed in New York after the slaying last August of Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano. Police retrieved unknown DNA from her body but the sample had no genetic match in the state database and privately investigators seemed frustrated about the lack of progress. After a November story in Newsday, NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill and Queens District Attorney Richard Brown recommended the use of familial searching.
Familial searching, which is done in 10 states, including California, uses special software and analysis of the Y chromosome to identify people already in the state DNA database who may be related to a potential suspect.
Vetrano’s family became advocates of familial searching, even after police identified suspect Chanel Lewis, 20, of Brooklyn, as a suspect in her murder through conventional detective work.
Vetrano’s father, Philip Vetrano, voiced disappointment with the commission’s action.
“I am somewhat disappointed but hopeful and optimistic that by the anniversary of Karina’s death that we will have familial searching,” Vetrano told Newsday on Wednesday.
Commission member Marvin Schechter, a defense attorney, raised some of the strongest criticism of the proposal. After the NYPD and prosecutors said all leads in the Vetrano case had been exhausted “low and behold” regular police methods led to a breakthrough, he said. Schechter also said familial searching might most affect people of color — believed to represent the largest number of people in the state database.
But commission chairman Michael Green said evidence showed a large number of cases could be solved involving people of color who were victims. Green also said familial searching can prevent wrongful convictions and in North Carolina led to exoneration of man wrongly convicted of a rape.
“How do we sit hear and put our head in the sand and say no we are not going to use this tool to right an injustice?,” Green said.
The measure will be referred back to a special DNA subcommittee that is slated to take it up again May 19.