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State forensic panel to fine tune familial DNA proposal

Familial DNA searching gained attention in New York

Familial DNA searching gained attention in New York after the August strangulation death of Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano. Her body was found along 83rd Street next to Spring Creek Park in Howard Beach, Queens, in August 2016. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

A special state subcommittee Friday will be fine tuning a proposal for New York State to use familial searching, an emerging DNA technique used to solve cold case homicides around the country.

The DNA subcommittee of the New York State Commission on Forensic Science will be voting on details of 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.”

If the subcommittee approves the measure it will pass its recommendation to the commission, which could vote on it next month. Familial searching is supported by the 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 an 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.

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.

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