During the investigation of the murder of Karina Vetrano, of...

During the investigation of the murder of Karina Vetrano, of Howard Beach, some argued for the use of the "familial searching" technique to test DNA. Credit: Instagram

A state panel of DNA experts approved on Monday a draft policy allowing familial searching, a new and controversial form of genetic testing, as a way of helping police solve homicide, certain sex crimes and terrorism cases.

By a unanimous vote of 6-0, the DNA subcommittee of the state Commission on Forensic Science approved a short policy statement calling for familial searching, also known as “FS,” as well as a set of regulations to govern the procedure in New York.

The commission is expected to address the proposal at its next meeting on April 12, said a spokeswoman for the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.

The subcommittee also recommended that the commission approve the policy, which garnered interest as a result of the killing of Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano last August. Police got DNA from Vetrano’s body but couldn’t get any matches with genetic profiles in the state DNA database.

The draft policy approved by the subcommittee said that before familial searching is done, the local police and prosecutors have to certify that reasonable investigative efforts had been exhausted or that emergency circumstances exist. It would also be used in investigations dealing with first-degree kidnapping and arson, as well as a crime using a chemical or biological weapon.

The sunbcommittee spokeswoman said the proposal strikes “a balance between enhancing public safety without compromising individual protections.”

Familial searching involves a two-step process that essentially uses probability rankings of genetic similarities to identify potential suspects. Ten states currently use it.

Interest increased in familial searching following a November 2016 story in Newsday that described familial searching and its potential use in the Vetrano investigation, which at that time seemed stalled. NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill and Queens District Attorney Richard Brown issued strong statements calling for changes in state procedures to allow familial testing.

“Today’s action by the DNA Subcommittee of the NYS Commission on Forensic Science unanimously approving familial match DNA searches is an important step forward in identifying the guilty, excluding the innocent and bringing closure to the families of victims of unsolved homicides,” Brown said in a statement.

The Vetrano family also supports the testing, even though police, using more traditional investigative methods, were finally able to make an arrest in early February of a suspect in Karina’s case.

An NYPD official recently stated that for homicides committed in 2016, 10 percent of the unsolved cases are like the Vetrano probe, with a viable DNA sample that has no match in state databases. Ninety percent of the victims in those unsolved cases are people of color, a percentage which matches the overall racial makeup of citywide murder victims, said a law enforcement official who asked not to be named.

Some civil libertarians have voiced concerns about privacy and the fact that the existing state DNA database has a disproportionately high number of profiles of people of color. Proponents said familial searching is race-neutral since the matching procedures don’t key to racial or ethnic backgrounds.

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