Debate Over DNA Use in Criminal Investigations Prompts Rally in Queens

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Forensic DNA familial DNA search – should it be banned in NYC? Uptown Radio’s Katherine Sullivan reports from a rally at City Hall.

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The introduction of forensic DNA testing fundamentally changed criminal investigations, and has even led to exonerations for some wrongfully convicted. But a controversial method of DNA testing–Familial DNA–is under debate in the state. Katherine Sullivan went to City Hall today to hear arguments about whether New York should allow the practice.

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SULLIVAN1- Phil Vetrano’s daughter Karina was jogging in the Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens last August when she was brutally assaulted and murdered. In front of an array of television cameras and teary eyed listeners, Vetrano urged others to put themselves in his shoes.

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VETRANO – I ask, I ask you, what would want to be done to find the person that ruined your life. I’m going to answer that question for you–everything they can. Let’s do everything.

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SULLIVAN – Everything, for the Vetranos includes familial DNA searching.

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Familial DNA works like this: Imagine your brother or father was arrested in connection with a violent crime. Familial searching allows investigators to search databases for potential matches not just to his DNA, but to yours as well, making you a potential suspect based solely on your family members.

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So far, the practice hasn’t been allowed in New York, but the state Commission on Forensic Science could change that. Today, they’re hearing public comments on the issue.

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Erin Murphy is a law prof at NYU, and an expert in DNA testing. She’s critical of the search.

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MURPHY – Even as a legislative matter, this is something that NYers shouldn’t approve. It’s hard to walk away from a technology that could solve crimes–of course everyone’s in favor of closing cases and finding perpetrators of crimes– but this is one that really comes at a high cost.

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SULLIVAN – Murphy feels those costs greatly outweigh the potential good, unfairly incriminating mostly black and latino families.

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MURPHY – it discriminates among our population and it basically says, if you’re related to someone who’s convicted of a crime, you get less rights. You’re automatically a suspect now in any crime.

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SULLIVAN – Familial searching is allowed in 10 states, including California–where it’s helped crack rape and murder cases. But courts in Maryland and Washington DC outlawed the technique. They say the it’s an invasion of privacy. Alison Lewis of the Legal Aid society, agrees.

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Lewis: we think it’s disproportionately targeting communities that have been over policed. We think there’s an equal protection problem much like the Floyd litigation in stop and frisk. We don’t think it’s an efficient use of law enforcement resources.

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SULLIVAN – Queens Assistant District Attorney Erin Rosenbaum says these risks are worth it.

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ROSENBAUM – without prompt action on familial testing, killers, rapists, and those who perpetrate other of violent crimes and serious offences will remain at large, the public will remain in danger, & the suffering of other victims and their families will be amplified by the inability to solve their cases.

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SULLIVAN – He says police should use every tool available.

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ROSENBAUM – We cannot always rely on a strike of lightening to solve a crime and we shouldn’t rely on it when sound scientific tools exist.

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SULLIVAN – But just last week, NYPD arrested a suspect in Karina’s murder–without the help of familial DNA.

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The state Commission isn’t making a final decision today. Some say they shouldn’t even have the power to make the decision–that that should be left to the legislature.

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For now, police in NY will have to rely on traditional DNA testing and old fashioned shoe leather investigating.

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Katherine Sullivan, Columbia Radio News

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