New York is becoming the latest U.S. state to let police hunt for suspects by identifying their relatives through DNA, after officials voted Friday to allow a practice that authorities call a crime-solver but civil libertarians consider a DNA dragnet.
The technique, known as familial DNA searching, is now expected to be available this fall in New York. The state Commission on Forensic Science voted 9-2 to allow it in murder cases and several other types of crimes, including times when it could help exonerate someone already convicted.
Spokeswoman Janine Kava says the new policy “will provide law enforcement with a proven scientific tool to help investigate and solve serious crimes.”
Authorities have for decades found suspects by matching crime scene evidence to convicted offenders’ DNA. Familial DNA testing comes into play when there’s no match. It looks instead for people similar enough to be closely related to whoever left the crime scene DNA. From there, investigators can look for family members who fit as suspects and, if they find one, pursue enough other evidence to bring charges.
At least 10 other states and some other countries use familial searching. It has borne fruit in such high-profile cases as Los Angeles’ Grim Sleeper serial killings.
Proponents see familial searching as a potent source of leads that can be done precisely and fairly.
“The process also helps exclude the innocent, and safeguards are in place so that the searching is done prudently and the information is used discreetly,” said state district attorneys’ association president Thomas Zugibe, who’s the DA in suburban Rockland County. Under New York’s new policy, the state criminal justice services commissioner would review every familial DNA searching request, and investigators couldn’t see the results without training on how to evaluate them.
While authorities praise the technique, defense lawyers and civil liberties advocates decry it for entangling law-abiding people in investigations because of their family ties. At least two jurisdictions, Maryland and Washington, D.C., have prohibited the practice, and the Legal Aid Society said Friday it was considering legal action or a legislative campaign to stop it in New York.
“Civil rights and privacy lost with today’s vote,” said Tina Luongo, an attorney with the society.
The commission began considering the issue last fall, when prosecutors wanted to use familial DNA searching in the case of Karina Vetrano, a 30-year-old killed while out running in New York City last August. Ultimately, police zeroed in on suspect Chanel Lewis through other means and then got a DNA sample from him that matched material under Vetrano’s nails and at the crime scene, they said. Lewis has pleaded not guilty to charges including murder.
Although familial searching didn’t factor in Vetrano’s case, her father applauded Friday’s vote.
“Many families will benefit, and many criminals will suffer,” Phil Vetrano wrote on an online reward-fund page. “We will always be grateful to Karina for this.”