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New York mulls use of DNA familial matching to solve cold cases

Karina Vetrano, 30, of Howard Beach, Queens, was

Karina Vetrano, 30, of Howard Beach, Queens, was found slain in the marshes of Spring Creek Park, near 161st Avenue and 78th Street in Howard Beach on Aug. 2, 2016. Credit: Karina Vetrano, 30, of Howard Beach, Queens, was found slain in the marshes of Spring Creek Park, near 161st Avenue and 78th Street in Howard Beach on Aug. 2, 2016.

A special New York State panel of experts is scheduled Monday to discuss and possibly propose ways of using an emerging DNA testing procedure to help state and local law enforcement solve cold cases.

The use of “familial searching,” as the technique is called, is one of the main items on the agenda of a special DNA subcommittee meeting Monday morning in Manhattan.

Outside experts familiar with the issue believe the subcommittee may reveal proposed regulations to govern the procedure in New York.

“Prudent, appropriate, limited safeguards can be put in place,” Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said recently.

Familial searching involves a two-step process to analyze crime-scene DNA not matched to existing profiles in databases. First, the DNA is compared with known genetic profiles by using probability rankings of potential family relationships. If any partial similarities emerge, an analysis of the Y chromosome is done to identify who may be actual relatives of an unknown suspect.

Once relatives are identified, police can use traditional investigative techniques to develop reasonable suspicion and retrieve a DNA sample of the person of interest.

The process is used in 10 states and a number of countries, including Britain. Interest in New York arose as an offshoot of the case of Karina Vetrano, the Howard Beach jogger who was found strangled last August in Spring Creek Park. Police had DNA of a suspect but couldn’t match it to any known genetic profile in state databases, and the investigation seemed stalled.

After a story last November in Newsday highlighted familial searching and its potential use in the Vetrano case, interest grew. Brown and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill issued strong statements in support of the procedure.

Vetrano’s parents, Philip and Catherine Vetrano, support the use of familial searching and testified in February at a special meeting of a state forensic science commission. Police made an arrest in the Vetrano case in early February as a result of tracking old police reports.

Still, the Vetrano family supports the technique. “Now more than ever,” Philip Vetrano said last week in an email.

Some civil libertarians are concerned about the impact on privacy and have likened it to a form of genetic stop-and-frisk. But advocates said such concerns are off the mark and note that familial searching is a valid scientific tool that can actually clear innocent people.

NYPD Deputy Chief Emanuel Katranakis has said that 10 percent of last year’s unsolved homicides in the city — an estimated 12 cases — have DNA evidence with no match and could benefit from familial searching. Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Robert Biancavilla testified in February that the county had 200 unsolved homicides since 1960, cases in which families such as the Vetranos don’t have closure.

However, Erin Murphy, a professor at New York University School of Law, testified at the February hearing that familial searching has an inherent racial bias because the genetic profiles in the state database are disproportionately those of people of color, who are convicted in greater numbers.

Former Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey countered such criticism when he testified that people of color also make up 91 percent of homicide victims and 71 percent of rape cases. NYPD data for 2015 showed that known homicide and rape suspects were identified as people of color in 91.7 percent and 85 percent of cases, respectively.

Rockne Harmon, a former prosecutor and proponent of familial searching, said last week that there is evidence that criminal tendencies tend to run in families, creating a strong chance that familial matching may uncover suspects.

“One thing you can be certain of is the next step the state takes will not be the last,” said UC Berkeley School of Law professor Franklin Zimring about New York. “There will be inevitable pressure to making the system a standard part of a citizen’s profile.”


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