Jovin file faces new FOI Act review

HARTFORD — The state Freedom of Information Commission agreed Wednesday to re-examine the New Haven Police Department’s extensive file on the Suzanne Jovin ’99 murder case to determine if any sections of it should be released to the public.

Representatives of the Hartford Courant and Jeff Mitchell, a friend of former Yale lecturer James Van de Velde ’82, requested the 4,500-page file earlier this year. Mitchell has been working with Van de Velde, the only named suspect in the Jovin investigation, in a private attempt to solve the case.

After a hearing in April and an “in camera” inspection of the entire file that lasted for months, FOI hearing officer Barbara Housen recommended in August that virtually none of the material in the file be disclosed.

Although it often rubber-stamps the preliminary rulings of its case officers, the five-person FOI Commission chose to ignore Housen’s recommendation and have one or more of its members examine the file personally, a process that is likely to take several months.

“They did the prudent thing, and that’s what I requested in my argument,” Mitchell said after the hearing.

Neither the city of New Haven nor the New Haven Police Department sent representatives to address the commission.

Assistant Corporation Counsel Donna Chance Dowdie and Assistant State’s Attorney James Clark, who represented the city and the state’s attorney’s office, respectively, at the March hearing, did not appear before the commission Wednesday and could not be reached for comment afterwards.

Jovin was found stabbed 17 times near the corner of East Rock and Edgehill roads, roughly two miles north of Old Campus, at about 10 p.m. on Dec. 4, 1998. New Haven police confirmed that Van de Velde, Jovin’s thesis advisor, was a suspect in the case after Yale canceled his classes in early 1999, but he has vehemently denied any role in the slaying.

The NHPD has divulged little new information about the investigation since a few months after the murder.

The Connecticut Freedom of Information Act requires that state and local government documents be publicly available upon request, although it allows for several exceptions. Police records can be kept confidential if the information could be used in a “prospective law enforcement action” or if their release could endanger witnesses.

The Courant’s attorney, Ralph Elliot, argued before the commission Wednesday that instead of withholding the entire file, Housen should have blacked out portions before releasing what remained, regardless of how unintelligible or insignificant it was.

“The rule is disclosure; the exception is exemption from disclosure,” he said.

Elliot also said the NHPD had failed to provide a point-by-point explanation to Housen of why each document within the file should be withheld, damaging the department’s case.

Mitchell then asked why Housen had not responded in her preliminary ruling to his contention that much of the file had already been given or communicated to Andrew Rosenzweig, a private investigator hired by Yale to investigate the case.

Because Rosenzweig has access to the file without working for the NHPD directly, Mitchell said the file has already been effectively disclosed.

“He is no different than me — or any person in this room,” Mitchell said.

After Elliot and Mitchell finished their statements, Housen responded by saying the Jovin case did not lend itself to redaction because of the sensitive nature of the documents.

“After reviewing the entire file, I do believe that the exemptions that were claimed were met,” she said.

The FOI Commission’s general counsel, Michael Pearlman, said he believed Housen’s judgement was sound but added that he thought one or more commissioners should personally go through the entire file again.

Although several commissioners expressed doubts about the magnitude of such a task and questioned whether that was their role under the law, a motion to have “a member or members” of the commission re-examine the file passed unanimously.

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