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State forensic panel may vote on using familial DNA Friday

A GoFundMe photo of Jennifer Cohen, 36, who

A GoFundMe photo of Jennifer Cohen, 36, who was found slain in Owl's Head Park in Brooklyn on September 29, 2016. Police said they have unidentified DNA from the crime scene that doesn't match any genetic samples in the state databases. Credit: GoFundMe

A top state forensic science body is scheduled to meet Friday and possibly vote on whether to allow New York State police agencies to use the emerging and somewhat controversial DNA procedure of familial searching used in other states to solve crimes, officials said.

Since early February, the New York State Commission on Forensic Science has been mulling the use of familial searching and Friday may act on regulations that have been drafted.

Under the proposed measure, the state DNA lab would be able to carry out the special DNA searching at the request of local prosecutors and police in cases of homicide, rape, arson and danger to public safety. The measure requires that reasonable conventional methods be exhausted first.

The procedure gained traction in New York with the killing of Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano, 30, last August. Police found a DNA sample with no matches in databases. After months of frustration, the Vetrano family came out in support of familial testing, as did NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown and others.

In February, Chanel Lewis, 20, was arrested for Vetrano’s killing after old police stop reports were examined. But her family still supports familial testing, as do family and friends of other victims interviewed this week.

Familial testing, which is used in 10 states including California and Colorado, is a two-step process. Unmatched DNA found at a crime scene is analyzed for similarities with known samples in state databases and then subject to an analysis of the Y-chromosome to find family members of a possible suspect. Cops would then use conventional tactics such as interviews and regular DNA tests to find a suspect. In recent months, California officials announced they solved old homicides with the process.

Civil libertarians believe familial testing would unfairly target black and Hispanics who are believed to make up the majority of those convicted and whose DNA samples are required to be on file. But proponents of familial DNA say the testing is race neutral and police note that of the 11 unsolved homicides last year in New York with unmatched DNA samples, 10 involved people of color and one a white woman.

One of those victims was Mamadou Diallo, 46, a native of West Africa, who was found shot to death last Sept. 24 inside the Sunshine Deli in Jamaica. A police official said unmatched DNA was recovered.

Omar Hatem, manager of the deli, said that if familial searching helped find Diallo’s killer it would be a positive advance. “Yes, it sure will,” said Hatem, who said he felt victimized as well by the killing of his colleague.

Jennifer Cohen, 36, was found by a jogger bludgeoned to death inside Owl’s Head Park in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn last Sept. 29. A police official said unmatched DNA was found at the crime scene. “I approve of whatever they have to do,” said Cohen’s grandfather, Harry Lavin, about familial testing. “I loved her very much.”

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