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For immediate release: Sunday, Dec. 13, 2009
Forensic Science Commission Approves Regulations Governing “Partial-Match” DNA
New policy will permit scientists to share leads with law enforcement
The New York State Commission on Forensic Science on Friday approved modifications to regulations and the DNA Databank implementation plan that will allow forensic laboratories to provide 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, laboratory officials report only if the sample matches a particular individual in the state’s DNA Databank. Current regulations do 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 Friday approved proposed regulatory changes that will allow forensic scientists to provide law enforcement with information on partial-matches. The amended regulations, and implementation plan, are designed to ensure that the new policy is applied fairly and in accordance with accepted scientific procedures and constitutional safeguards.
“The Commission has taken an important step to address the serious and valid concerns expressed by forensic scientists, who feared that they are currently placed in an untenable ethical bind: right now, they have no authority to share information, discovered inadvertently, that may provide vital evidence in a criminal investigation,” said Deputy Secretary for Public Safety Denise E. O’Donnell, chair of the Commission on Forensic Science. “That is entirely unreasonable, and contrary to the concept of public interest, to ask our laboratories to withhold information that they know may be the key to stopping a serial rapist or murderer, or exonerating an innocent individual.”
Deputy Secretary O’Donnell said the Commission took action only after the matter was thoroughly debated by its members and 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.
The amended regulations will address 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. Deputy Secretary O’Donnell stressed that the new regulations 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.
There are several steps that remain in the approval process: The DNA Subcommittee must review the regulations and implementation plan as approved by the Commission, and submit its recommendation back to the full Commission. Then, the regulations will be forwarded to the Governor’s Office of Regulatory Reform (GORR) for publication and public comment. If the regulations are ultimately adopted after that process, every partial-match case will be reviewed by the scientists on the DNA Subcommittee and by the Commission on Forensic Science to ensure they are implemented in a manner consistent with the regulations and implementation plan.
As of Nov. 30, 2009, the state’s DNA Databank contained 343,206 offender profiles and 30,259 crime scene (forensic) samples. Since the Databank’s inception in 1994 through the end of November of this year, there have been 8,691 hits (these were either forensic to offender or forensic to forensic) and 9,107 investigations aided. Through Dec. 31, 2008, there have been 1,341 convictions reported to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, including 391 for sexual assault and 116 for homicide.
The Commission on Forensic Science is a 14-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.
The Commission is empowered to develop minimum standards and a program of accreditation for all public forensic laboratories in New York State. Its DNA Subcommittee advises the Commission on any matter related to the implementation of scientific controls and quality assurance procedures for the performance of forensic DNA analysis.