Criminal Defendant in New York Unsuccessfully Appeals Use of DNA From 1984 Case

In a recent murder case before a New York trial court, the defendant argued that evidence relating to a 1984 murder should not have been entered into the court record. The evidence, brought forward by a team of investigators from the State, used DNA from the murder victim to narrow down a list of potential suspects in the case, eventually bringing prosecutors to the defendant. In its opinion, the appellate court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress, concluding that the DNA evidence was indeed admissible.

Facts of the Case

According to the opinion, in November of 1984, the body of a teenager was found in Rochester. The victim appeared to have been raped in addition to killed, and police officers recovered sperm from her body when they investigated the scene. For 33 years, investigators were unable to find a DNA match for the semen.

In 2017, the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services created a new regulation regarding DNA testing. The new rule allowed investigators to use a suspect’s DNA not only to find the individual that committed the crime, but also to find any known family members of the suspect as well. This new process was known as “familial DNA search”, because when officers found a suspect’s family members, they were then able to more easily track down the suspect him or herself.

Using this new process, investigators analyzed the DNA found on the murder victim and discovered that the person committing the crime was related to two individuals already in the criminal justice system. Because the defendant in this case was the only family member of these two individuals living near the victim at the time of the murder, the investigators were able to find the defendant and eventually prosecute his case. He was later found guilty of murder.

In May 2022, the Division of Criminal Justice Services decided this method of using DNA should be outlawed, and it disallowed investigators from using familial DNA searches. The defendant then appealed his guilty verdict, arguing he was identified and prosecuted illegally under these new 2022 regulations.

The Decision

The defendant stated in his argument that the only way investigators found him was through the familial DNA search. This kind of search was outlawed in 2022, and the defendant argued that the results of the investigators’ search in his case should be invalidated as a result.

The court considered this argument but ultimately disagreed with the defendant. Yes, said the court, familial DNA searches are now considered to be illegal. At the time, however, the investigators were well within their rights when they used the defendant’s two family members to track him down. Thus, based on the law at the time of the investigators’ search, the method of tracking the defendant down was reasonable. It did not make sense to suppress the DNA evidence from the record when the investigators were obeying the law at the time they were re-examining the case.

The defendant’s appeal was denied, and the original guilty verdict stayed in place.

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