QUEENS (PIX11) – It comes as the public becomes more aware of the technique as law enforcement across the country uses it in high-profile cases. Genetic genealogy helped police track down the alleged suspect in the murder of four college students in Idaho.

“Modern technology is an amazing thing,” said Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz regarding the use of genetic genealogy to solve cold cases and catch suspected criminals.

Investigators also used it in the unsolved Gilgo Beach serial killer case to identify a murder victim after nearly 20 years. In Queens, the cold case team in Katz’s office used genetic genealogy to solve the murder of a World War I veteran 45 years after he was killed.

“This is the first case in New York City where someone was found, prosecuted, and convicted using forensic genealogy,” Katz told PIX11 News. “This was an amazing case of getting justice for a family that really needed it.”

Some law enforcement agencies also make use of familial DNA searches, although that is currently not allowed in the New York State criminal database.

CeCe Moore, the chief genetic genealogist at Parabon, explains there is a difference between genetic genealogy and familial DNA.

“Familial DNA is when law enforcement searches in a law enforcement database, so the database of compelled DNA that’s been collected from felons. Familial DNA searches are looking for very close relatives of those individuals,” said Moore. “Investigative genetic genealogy is provided on voluntarily provided DNA, so it is performed in the two genetic genealogy databases that are public. Family Tree DNA and GED Match,” Moore adds. “Instead of just looking at a handful of genetic markers, like is done for the law enforcement databases, we’re instead analyzing about 700-thousand genetic markers, and that allows us to find much more distant relatives.”

Nathan H. Lents, a geneticist and forensic biologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, explains why it’s being used more often now. 

Lents said it used to be “the only DNA profiles we had were in the offender databases, or suspect databases, so a very small percentage of the population did we have their DNA, about 3 to 4 percent of the population. With more and more amateur genealogy going on, and people submitting their own DNA to these companies, we have a much larger percentage of the population and it’s more representative, it’s broad across the country.” Lents adds “as of right now, the idea that a relative’s DNA could implicate you in a crime, makes people pretty uncomfortable.”