Looking out from the steps of St. Mary’s Church on Hillhouse Avenue, at the foot of Dickens’ “most beautiful street in America,” it is hard to imagine that this is the spot of one of Yale’s greatest tragedies.
It has been 10 years since the murder of Christian Haley Prince ’93 by these steps in the early morning of Feb. 17, 1991 sent shockwaves through the Yale community. Ten years have passed since the imaginary ivy wall that separated the University from its surroundings disappeared forever.
And 10 years have passed since Edward and Sally Prince have seen their youngest child, a fourth-generation Yalie who was lost because of a senseless and inexplicable act.
For Yale, the Prince murder represented not just an isolated tragedy but a failure, possibly unavoidable, to keep its students safe. It was a painful reminder that even the heart of the University’s campus cannot be a crime-free refuge in an urban environment.
No one could have expected it. Despite a sharp increase in New Haven’s murder rate during the drug wars of the 1980s, Prince was the first slain Yale student since Gary Stein ’75 was robbed and murdered in 1974.
And it happened in one of the least likely places anyone could have imagined.
‘Pierson Sophomore Slain Sunday on Hillhouse Ave.’
In a time-honored tradition, Prince began the night of Feb. 16 with dinner at Mory’s. Later in the evening, he attended a party in Sterling-Sheffield-Strathcona Hall before leaving with a group of friends at about 1 a.m.
His friends wanted to go to Naples for pizza. But Prince, a standout lacrosse player from Chevy Chase, Md., had practice the next morning and decided to go home to his off-campus apartment on Whitney Avenue.
A graduate student driving up Hillhouse found Prince lying by the middle steps of St. Mary’s, shot in the chest, just 15 minutes later.
Prince was pronounced dead at Yale-New Haven Hospital at 2:05 a.m Sunday, Feb. 17, 1991. He was 19 years old.
Prince — a 6-foot-2-inch, blond-haired and blue-eyed lacrosse player — was in many ways the archetype of a successful Yale student. He came from a family that was deeply devoted to the University; everyone from Prince’s great-grandfather to his brother and sister attended Yale.
“His enthusiasm, I think, was shown in his friends,” his father Edward Prince said in an interview Thursday. “He just loved the people at Yale and the diversity, but particularly his close friends.”
Prince was passionate about everything from the Washington Redskins to the environment. He loved to spend time outdoors and wrote about a canoe trip in Canada on his Yale application.
“I remember him describing the lakes that they traveled on, and he talked about what he called the timeless settings,” Edward Prince said. “The trees came right down to the water’s edge, undisturbed for millions of years. And that deeply moved him.”
His death, like that of Suzanne Jovin ’99 in 1998, stunned the campus and provoked an outpouring of grief.
“It was just such an anomaly and a shock that all of our lives kind of stopped in that moment,” said Alderman Gerald Garcia ’94 SOM ’01, who said he knew Prince casually.
More than 1,000 mourners came to Prince’s funeral in Washington, D.C., including many of Prince’s friends from Yale.
“Christian has served Yale, Christian has served his country and now Christian is serving God,” said Ted Prince ’88, Christian’s brother, in his eulogy.
Two trials, no murderer
A few months after Prince’s death, New Haven police arrested James Duncan Fleming, a black 16-year-old from Newhallville, on a tip from one of his friends, an unrelated youth named Randy Fleming.
In a recorded statement, Randy Fleming told police he was in a car driven by Duncan Fleming at about 1 a.m. Feb. 17 when they spotted Christian Prince walking home on Hillhouse. Duncan Fleming had stopped the car, approached Prince with a pistol and demanded his money, Randy Fleming said.
After Prince handed over his wallet, the witness continued, Duncan Fleming struck him with the gun, knocking Prince to the ground, and said, “I ought to shoot this cracker.”
Duncan Fleming then fired a single shot into Prince’s body, Randy Fleming said.
He added that Duncan Fleming dropped the wallet, which was found across the street from Prince’s body, in his haste to return to the car.
This information helped lead to the arrest of Duncan Fleming in May 1991 on four charges: first-degree murder, felony murder, attempted robbery and conspiracy.
But on the stand during Duncan Fleming’s trial a year later, Randy Fleming recanted his original statements, testifying police had threatened him and forced him to lie.
The loss of this key witness dealt a serious blow to prosecutor Michael Dearington’s case against Duncan Fleming, a problem compounded by the conflicting testimony of other witnesses.
Forced to choose whether to believe Randy Fleming’s original statement or his later testimony, and lacking concrete physical evidence, the jury convicted Duncan Fleming only on a charge of conspiracy to rob Prince. It acquitted him on the charge of first-degree murder, deadlocking on charges of felony murder and attempted robbery.
In March 1993, after a new trial, a second jury acquitted Duncan Fleming on both charges. It was another blow to Prince’s grief-stricken family.
“I felt that the jury deeply hurt us with their decision,” Edward Prince said.
Fleming was sentenced to a nine-year prison sentence on the conspiracy charge. He is currently on supervised parole, according to Department of Correction records and could not be reached for comment.
“I wish they hadn’t found him guilty on any count,” Duncan Fleming’s father James told The New York Times after the trial. “My family and I want him home.”
The trial of Duncan Fleming, a black youth from Newhallville, for the murder of a wealthy white Yale student brought racial and class tensions in the city before a national audience, spawning several newspaper articles and one book, “Dead Opposite,” by Geoffrey Douglas.
By bringing national attention to safety issues on campus, the murder also forced Yale to reexamine its own security practices and relationship with New Haven. Within days, administrators made plans to beef up the security and police budgets, although the University still saw a significant decline in applications in the short term.
Since 1991 the University has installed a network of emergency blue phones, improved lighting, expanded its police department and created a new security force. In 1995 Yale President Richard Levin founded the Office of New Haven and State Affairs to serve as a liaison with the city.
At Yale, memory of Prince’s murder has dimmed with time. But both his family’s grief and their happy memories of a vibrant, outgoing son will endure forever.
Edward and Sally Prince now have three young grandchildren, and their very names cry out the family’s loss: Christian Carter Roberts, Avery Christian Prince and Haley Asher Prince.
Despite the tragedy on campus, Edward Prince said he would not discourage his grandchildren from attending Yale if they wish to become the family’s fifth generation at the University some day.
“I hope he is with the members of my family who have passed away,” Prince said of his son. “I hope he has found a wonderful afterlife. And I’m sure he’s still rooting for the Redskins.”