John Caher, (518) 457-8415 or (518) 225-5240 (cell)
For immediate release: Thursday, June 4, 2009
Forensic Science Commission Approves “Partial-Match” DNA
New policy will permit scientists to share leads with law enforcement
The New York State Commission on Forensic Science is eliminating a regulatory barrier that prevents forensic laboratories from providing potentially crucial information to law enforcement officials investigating a crime.
Currently, when a crime scene DNA sample is submitted to a New York State forensic laboratory, officials are specifically permitted to report only if the sample matches a particular individual in the state’s DNA Databank. The regulation does not permit them to inform police of “near matches” that occur inadvertently and may indicate that the perpetrator is a close blood relative of the individual whose DNA is on file.
The Commission on Tuesday decided to pursue a regulatory change that would allow forensic scientists to provide law enforcement with information on partial-matches. The forensic science commission is now in the process of promulgating regulations to ensure that the new policy is applied fairly and in accordance with accepted scientific procedures and constitutional safeguards.
“Currently, there is nothing in the regulations that permits forensic scientists to tell law enforcement if, for example, they inadvertently discovered that a serial rapist might be a close blood relative of an individual whose DNA is in the state databank,” said Deputy Secretary for Public Safety Denise E. O’Donnell, chair of the Commission on Forensic Science. “That hinders investigations, needlessly jeopardizes public safety and places scientists in an untenable ethical bind since they have no clear regulatory guidance on whether they can share the information.”
Deputy Secretary O’Donnell said the Commission took action only after the matter was thoroughly researched by the DNA Subcommittee, which elicited technical information from top scientists, such as: Dr. George Carmody, who chaired the FBI’s Scientific Working Group on DNA Analysis Methods; human geneticist Professor Ranajit Chakraborty, a renowned human geneticist; Dr. Mecki Prinz, lab director for the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner; and Dr. Barry Duceman, the DNA laboratory director for the New York State Police.
Kathleen Corrado, a scientist and Director of Laboratories at the Onondaga County Center for Forensic Sciences, said scientists eagerly await the new regulations.
“The lack of a defined policy regarding this issue puts the lab directors in a difficult situation in that a laboratory could have one of these inadvertent, fortuitous matches occur at any time and we would then be responsible for determining a course of action immediately to ensure the safety of the community,” Dr. Corrado said. “We do not want to be responsible for holding back information that could help to solve a serious crime and therefore we believe it is imperative that a thoughtful and clearly defined policy be put into place as soon as possible.”
Deputy Secretary O’Donnell said the new policy addresses the rare case where a routine search of the DNA Databank results in an inadvertent near hit that could greatly limit the pool of potential suspects. She stressed that the new policy will not permit what is often called “familial searching,” or singling out particular families and actively searching their DNA profiles, as is currently permitted in a small number of states, including California and Colorado.
The state’s DNA Databank currently contains nearly 341,000 offender profiles and roughly 28,000 crime scene profiles. Since its inception in 1994, there have been nearly 6,000 hits resulting in more than 1,300 convictions. So far this year, 7,630 investigations have been aided through the DNA Databank.
Although the range of offenses for which a convict must provide a DNA sample has been expanded several times, New York is currently collecting genetic markers from only about 46 percent of those who are convicted of crimes. Governor David A. Paterson has proposed an all-crimes DNA bill that would require anyone convicted of a penal law crime to submit a DNA sample.
Susan Xenarios, director of the Crime Victims Treatment Center at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center, said there is no question that partial-matching will prevent other woman from enduring what she endured in 1974, a forcible rape.
“If a forensic laboratory happens upon potential evidence that could help law enforcement catch and stop a serial rapist, it is ridiculous to prohibit the lab from sharing that clue,” Ms. Xenarios said. “I cannot understand why we would expect our forensic professionals to sit on this information while a rapist or other criminal continues to victimize more and more people.”
Onondaga County District Attorney William J. Fitzpatrick, a member of the Commission on Forensic Science, stressed that partial-match information will be used rarely and discreetly.
“This is just an additional forensic tool for law enforcement to catch serial offenders,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said. “To the critics who see an invasion of privacy behind any law enforcement action, the government’s top priority is to protect its citizenry. How could a forensic laboratory have an investigatory lead that points to an offender’s relative and not report it? Simply put, this will make New York a safer place.”
Saratoga County District Attorney James A. Murphy III said partial-matching is a modern version of traditional police work – following up on leads.
“As investigators work to solve crimes, they follow every lead, evaluate every aspect of a case,” said Mr. Murphy, who also serves on the Commission. “They aren’t prohibited from tracking down a vehicle if they only have partial license plate, or from interviewing witnesses that may have only seen a portion of what occurred. Allowing forensic labs to provide police with information regarding a partial-match DNA sample is an important step toward ensuring that investigators have critical information to do their jobs, and do them effectively.”
Denver District Attorney Mitchell A. Morrissey said New York has taken “an important step in the right direction” by sanctioning partial-matching.
“This information can be critical to solving a violent crime and preventing further victims, but can also help exonerate an innocent person,” Mr. Morrissey said. “Take the case of Darryl Hunt.”
Mr. Hunt was convicted of rape and murder in North Carolina and sentenced to life in prison, but later cleared because of partial-match DNA, Mr. Morrissey said.
“Darryl Hunt was freed after serving 19 years when DNA from the crime scene was run through the state’s database and they got a partial-match which was remarkably close to a felon in the database,” Mr. Morrissey said. “The follow up investigation showed that the man who actually committed the crime was Darryl’s older brother, Willard Brown. When confronted with the DNA evidence, Willard Brown confessed and Darryl Hunt was exonerated.”
Deputy Secretary O’Donnell said the new regulation will balance law enforcement and privacy interests, with the ultimate goal of protecting the public.
The Commission on Forensic Science is a 12-member panel that includes representatives from law enforcement, criminal defense, the judiciary, the state Department of Health and forensic laboratories. It is chaired by Deputy Secretary O’Donnell in her role as Commissioner of the Division of Criminal Justice Services.