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State panel to consider new DNA technique to ID crime suspects

Philip Vetrano speak at a special meeting of

Philip Vetrano speak at a special meeting of the NYS Commission on Forensic Science and DNA Subcommittee on Feb. 10, 2017. Credit: Corey Sipkin

A state commission overseeing forensic science in New York is scheduled to take a key vote Wednesday that could pave the way for local law enforcement to begin using this summer the emerging technique of familial DNA searching to solve homicide and sex crimes.

The vote by the New York State Commission on Forensic Science is slated for Wednesday morning. The consent of at least seven members of the 14-person body is needed to approve regulations governing the use of the technique by DNA labs in the state, said a spokeswoman for the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.

A special DNA subcommittee last month approved the measure by a vote of 6-0, with one member absent. If the full commission approves the regulations, they would be published in the State Register and the public would have 45 days to comment before they take effect, DCJS spokeswoman Janine Kava said.

Familial searching is in use in 10 states, including California and Colorado. Law enforcement officials in Britain and the Netherlands also use it.

Law enforcement officials in New York City, including NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill and Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, pushed for the procedure after a story last November in Newsday highlighted its potential use in the case of slain Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano.

Although the Vetrano probe led to an arrest using conventional methods, the family still supports familial searching.

“This has to be done for other people,” Vetrano’s father, Philip, told Newsday recently.

The searching method is called upon in cases where an unknown crime scene DNA sample — as occurred in the Vetrano case — has failed to match any genetic profiles in the state databases. The unknown sample is put through a two-step process that uses special software to produce a list of persons in the database who are likely close relatives of the person whose DNA was left at the crime scene. In the second step, a lineage test is done, usually involving the Y chromosome, to confirm the relationship.

Armed with the test results, police would question the identified relatives of the person under scrutiny to try and locate and obtain a DNA sample from the person of interest. In about 36 percent of cases the investigations lead to the identification of a suspect, according to a 2015 report by the National Institute of Justice.

Under the New York proposal, crimes for which the technique can be used include homicide, first-degree rape, sexual assault, arson, first-degree kidnapping and crimes involving “a significant threat to public safety.” Strict privacy controls are required.

Civil libertarians and some defense attorneys have criticized the technique. At a February public hearing, Erin Murphy, a professor at New York University School of Law, said it can put relatives of somebody with a criminal record unfairly under suspicion as a possible suspect simply because of a blood relationship.

Murphy also said that there was racial bias at play since people of color are convicted in numbers proportionately greater than their population sizes and have their DNA on file.

But proponents stress that the technique is race-neutral, can clear innocent people and that people of color are overrepresented in the population of both crime victims and suspects. A police source said of the 11 unsolved homicides in New York in 2016 with unknown DNA samples, nine involved black victims, one Hispanic and one white.

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