During a sometimes emotional meeting with state officials Friday, the parents of slain Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano asked New York State to allow an emerging form of DNA testing to be used by law enforcement as a way of better solving cold cases.
The joint meeting of the New York State Commission on Forensic Science and its DNA subcommittee was held in Manhattan so the members could hear from the Vetrano family and law enforcement experts who favor “familial matching,” as the technique is called, as well as civil libertarians and defense attorneys who oppose it.
Vetrano was killed Aug. 2 as she jogged through Spring Creek Park near her home. She had been strangled and sexually assaulted. Police found unidentified DNA on her body but couldn’t match it with any genetic samples in the state databases.
After a November story in Newsday, NYPD officials and Queens District Attorney Richard Brown asked that familial searching be done. Familial matching allows investigators to examine unknown DNA to see whether it signals a family relationship with someone in the state database. It is done in 10 states, including California and Colorado.
After a six-month investigation that seemed at times to go cold, detectives last week arrested Chanel R. Lewis, 20, of East New York in Vetrano’s slaying. He was tracked down through old summonses and voluntarily gave police a DNA sample that matched material found on Vetrano’s body, officials said. Although a suspect has been arrested, the Vetrano family is still pushing for use of familial searching.
“I need to stress that [in] our personal tragedy, in reality, familial DNA is no longer our fight,” Vetrano’s mother, Catherine, told the panel. “But despite the fact that I can barely walk out the door each day, I came so that I can represent and honor my daughter and still continue this fight.”
Fighting for composure at times, Catherine Vetrano said since the killing she simply walked through life.
“I am no longer living, I survive each day,” she said, in remarks that drew tears from others in the audience. “But my devotion to this mission, allowing . . . [familial searching] brings me the strength to come here today.”
“This powerful scientific tool can help identify suspects who commit violent crimes while also providing safeguards against wrongful convictions by identifying the actual perpetrator, as well as exonerate the innocent,” said NYPD deputy chief Emanuel Katranakis, who runs the NYPD forensic lab.
In Suffolk County, Assistant District Attorney Robert Biancavilla said his county has had more than 200 unsolved homicides since 1960.
“That is 200 families, just like the Vetranos, who today have not had any closure,” Biancavilla said.
Prosecutors are looking for leads to point them in the right direction, something that familial searching can provide, Biancavilla said.
But Erin Murphy, a professor at New York University School of Law, said although familial searching can be useful, it also can put relatives of convicts on the wrong side of the ledger as possible suspects simply because of a blood relationship.
Familial searching can be like a “poor quality, unreliable informant,” she said.
Murphy also said racial bias lurks in familial searching because it focuses disproportionately on people of color, who are convicted in numbers proportionally greater than their population size.
However, former Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey noted that people of color are also overrepresented in the populations of crime victims. In 2016, New York City’s homicide victims were 91 percent black and Hispanic, as were more than 71 percent of rape victims, Morrissey said.
“The familial search process itself is race blind,” said former Los Angeles prosecutor Rock Harmon, a proponent.
“It needs to be done,” Karina’s father, Philip, told Newsday later. “This has to be done for other people. We are here today because of Karina.”
Committee chair Mike Green referred the matter to the subcommittee for further consideration.