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NY DNA Measure Touted As Key For Cold Cases

ALBANY — While the first breakthroughs in the science of using genetic material to solve crimes happened more than 30 years ago, police in New York are now severely limited in what they can do with DNA evidence.

But legislation to authorize the use of what is known as familial DNA to zero in on suspected culprits has now been introduced in both the state Senate and the Assembly.

In the view of criminal prosecutors, the technique is a potential game-changer in challenging homicide and rape investigations where the trail of evidence has gone cold and perpetrators may have relocated to other states.

“Familial DNA is such a vital law enforcement tool to help capture some very violent individuals,” Sen. Phil Boyle, R-Long Island, told CNHI.

The state’s first cold case murder investigation that produced an arrest with the aid of familial DNA searches came in the 1984 murder of 14-year-old Wendy Jerome of Rochester.

In September 2020, more than 35 years after the attack, Timothy Williams, now 58. a former Rochester resident living in Florida, was charged with murder in that case. Authorities said he had lived near the victim though the two were not acquainted.

With the 2022 legislative session slated to conclude June 2, Boyle said, “Time is of the essence to get this done.”

In many cases, victims of violent crimes and their loved ones have had to agonize over the slow pace of investigations that could be streamlined once a suspected attacker is linked to a crime through DNA searches and subsequent detective work, he noted.

Familial DNA searches involve taking crime scene DNA evidence and checking it against existing DNA profiles stored in the state DNA database. The investigators then use traditional detective work to search for blood relatives of the person who committed the crime. In the case of the Rochester murder, for instance, the man who ended up being identified as the murder suspect had a relative whose DNA was in the state database.

Prosecutors and police officials emphasize the use of familial DNA can also result in the exoneration of persons wrongly accused of crimes.

Boyle’s bill is being carried in the Assembly by Assemblyman Doug Smith, R-Long Island.

The need for the legislation, Boyle said, was heightened last week when a state appellate court invalidated state regulations covering DNA familial searches of a databank created by police agencies. The court found that the regulation “cannot stand” because it had been implemented by a state agency even when creating such procedures should be an “inherently legislative function.”

It remains unknown whether the attorney general’s office will appeal the decision to the state’s highest court, Boyle noted. But if the ruling is allowed to stand, the court-identified defects in the regulation would be addressed by the legislation.

The Legal Aid Society, an organization that opposed the regulations voided by the appellate court, has registered its objections to the use of familial DNA.

“Because of biased policing methods such as ‘stop and frisk,’ the DNA database contains an overrepresentation of people of color,” the organization said following the issuance of the court ruling. “Familial searching magnifies and enhances that bias by making family members who have no criminal records subject to police investigations.”

The lawsuit was initiated by the Legal Aid Society and the law firm of Gibson Dunn four years ago. The litigation was a response to the regulations put in place in 2017 by the state Department of Criminal Justice Services and the Commission on Forensic Science.

Boyle had earlier advanced legislation authorizing familial DNA searches in New York, but the state agencies believed their regulations provided the basis for moving forward with familial DNA searches.

The District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, which represents county prosecutors, said it supports the use of familial DNA searches

“Familial DNA searching is an important investigative tool that can be valuable in investigating and solving violent crimes and cold cases,” said the group’s president, J. Anthony Jordan, who is the Washington County district attorney.

“New York state has established extensive and significant safeguards to ensure that the process is not abused in any way,” Jordan added.

Peter Kehoe, executive director of the New York State Sheriffs Association, said he supports familial DNA searches for the reasons outlined by the county prosecutors.

“Hopefully, the Legislature will act,” Kehoe said.

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