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Family DNA becoming latest crime-fighting tool

National Public Radio File Photo

Anyone who has used DNA family geneology websites, like Ancestry DNA, knows there are a lot of people out there who are genetic relations. That is the root of a new criminal investigative technique.
A federal group just shut down by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was probing what is called familial DNA. New York set up a state commission inside the Division of Criminal Justice Services to look at the investigative method.

The state group has not formally signed off on it, but has informally approved this use of DNA. It allows forensic scientists to essentially throw a net into a pool of relatives' DNA to look for a specific individual, even if that person has never been tested.

Erie County District Attorney John Flynn says it is a major step forward for criminal investigators.

"You want to do anything you can legally from an investigative standpoint to find out who committed this heinous crime," says Flynn. "It gives you a new investigative lead into cases where DNA evidence found at the scene of a crime resembles that of existing DNA profile, where it can potentially give you a lead onto someone who committed a crime. It's an invaluable tool."

Even so, Flynn says there will be an educational process in this, as it was decades ago when DNA came into the criminal justice world. Prosecutors, defense attorneys and law enforcement will have to learn how to deal with family DNA and how to explain it all to a jury, without getting it rejected based on privacy issues.

"It's incumbent upon the prosecution, obviously, to educate and explain to the jurors how this developed, how the investigation unfolded, how this particular piece of evidence was used as a lead to ultimately and subsequently find the actual defendant," says Flynn.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.