MANHATTAN — The mother of slain jogger Karina Vetrano on Friday kept her commitment to testify at a state DNA hearing, even though investigators say they have arrested the man who raped and killed her daughter.
“This is not my fight anymore,” Cathie Vetrano said, referring to the fact that her daughter’s case was solved without the use of a controversial method called DNA Familial Searching. “But I’m here.”
Standing at a podium — and facing members of the New York State Commission on Forensic Science — Cathie Vetrano broke down during her passionate testimony, arguing that familial searching should be utilized in New York to help other families who are waiting for vicious crimes to be solved. DNA familial searching involves testing of “Y” chromosomes that could lead to male relatives of an unknown rapist or killer.
“Despite the fact that I can barely walk out the door every day, I came so that I can represent and honor my daughter and still continue the fight,” Vetrano said, as her voice broke.
“Since this most heart-wrenching loss of my daughter, Karina, I am no longer living.”
Gasping and fighting to contain her composure, the grieving mother added, “I only exist. I survive each day with a ton of bricks on my shoulders.”
Speaking of the August beating, rape and strangulation of her daughter in Howard Beach’s Spring Creek Park — when 30-year-old Karina Vetrano was jogging alone — Cathie Vetrano said, “I imagine the absolute terror that she endured at the hands of a monster. There’s no medication or prayer that will heal my shattered being.”
Vetrano’s father, Phil, who spearheaded the push for DNA familial searching when detectives initially got no hits for the killer on a national, DNA database, asked members of the state subcommittee to imagine finding their own child dead, as he did.
“I ask you, what would you want to be done?” Phil Vetrano challenged them.
Last Saturday, NYPD detectives took Chanel Lewis, 20, of East New York, into custody.
Lewis gave a DNA sample and reportedly told investigators he’d become angry about something that happened at home, so he violently lashed out at Vetrano when he encountered her in Spring Creek Park, which is about 3 miles from his house.
He confessed to the crime and made videotaped statements, police said.
Lewis’ mother Vita held a brief news conference this week and said her son has a mental health problem.
“He is a God-fearing boy,” she said, “who respected life and wouldn’t hurt anybody.”
Lewis added that her son needed help.
Not everyone testifying at the DNA hearing agreed with the use of familial searching, even though it has been successfully utilized in 10 other states.
“Familial searches take one entire class of citizens, the fathers, sons, and brothers of convicted offenders and turns them into suspects,” NYU professor Erin Murphy testified.
Brad Maurer, of New York County Defenders’ Services, said, “The criminal justice system has created a massive, racial disparity in the way poor New Yorkers of color are policed and prosecuted.”
Maurer then suggested DNA familial searching would be police departments’ answer to stop, question and frisk.
“Now, instead of what’s in your pockets, law enforcement wants to know what’s in your DNA, all because a relative of yours was convicted in a past crime,” he said.
Multiple law enforcement professionals sought to allay the fears of civil libertarians and talked about the enormous benefits of familial searching.
“It’s proven to produce leads that can break cold-case murders,” said Assistant District Attorney Eric Rosenbaum, chief of the DNA Prosecutions Unit in Queens.
He was appearing on behalf of Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, who wrote a letter in December 2016 to the New York State Commission on Forensic Science.
Deputy Chief Emanuel Katranakis, commanding officer of the NYPD’s Forensic Investigations Division, praised the method.
“The investigative value of familial searching cannot be overstated,” he siad.
“Every investigative step is controlled, deliberate and sensitive,” he added.
Katranakis cited a recent study which found that 10 percent of unsolved homicides in 2016 may have been solved if familial searching was available as a tool.
The deputy chief also cited a disturbing case from the Bronx involving a 12-year-old girl who was waiting for a city bus to get to school, two years ago this month. Katranakis said a man approached the girl and said, “Don’t scream or I’ll kill you.”
The man then led the girl into an alley and raped her.
A male DNA profile was developed but two years later, the girl’s rapist remains at large. There were no hits among existing criminal offenders in the state or national database.
Near the end of the hearing, a compelling piece of testimony came from Rockne Harmon, a former prosecutor in California. Harmon testified he helped develop an effective DNA familial search test there and urged the Attorney General in California to utilize it with a remarkable result.
It turned out the son of an unknown serial killer, who submitted DNA to a state database, had a genetic profile that closely matched the man who was wanted for killing 11 people in a 20-year period.
Detectives decided to retrieve DNA from Lonnie Franklin Jr., the man’s father, in a clever way.
“With the Grim Sleeper, they posed as waiters in a restaurant and got his utensils,” Harmon said. “He matched the evidence.”
The practice of picking up samples from a criminal suspect without them realizing it is called “abandoned DNA.”
Members of the state DNA Subcommittee had a lot to process Friday, and it’s not certain when they will decide whether DNA familial searching is part of New York State’s future.