Former Yale political science lecturer James Van de Velde ’82, the only named suspect in the Suzanne Jovin ’99 murder investigation, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Friday against New Haven Police Chief Melvin H. Wearing and several other current and former officers.
The lawsuit alleges that the defendants repeatedly violated Van de Velde’s civil rights by naming him — and only him — as one of a “pool of suspects” in the Jovin case, a label police have repeatedly used and never withdrawn.
“In effect, as a result of defendants’ conduct, [Van de Velde] was charged, tried and convicted in the media, and therefore in the minds of much of the public — without regard to facts, logic, legal standards, or the rule of law,” the lawsuit alleges.
Jovin, a senior majoring in political science, was found on the night of Dec. 4, 1998, in New Haven’s wealthy East Rock neighborhood — about 1.5 miles from Yale’s campus — suffering from 17 stab wounds to her neck and back.
Van de Velde, Jovin’s senior thesis adviser, has maintained his innocence since the start of the investigation and has never been charged with the crime. He alleged in his suit that the negative publicity he received because of his status as a suspect has damaged his “reputation, his job status, his present and future career, and his health and well-being.”
The lawsuit against New Haven police, which came just after the third anniversary of the still-unsolved murder, was filed in U.S. District Court in New Haven just before the federal statute of limitations governing civil rights litigation expired Friday.
“We waited as long we could for police to either solve the crime or to do right and clear Jim Van de Velde — and, in fact, they did neither,” said David Grudberg ’82, Van de Velde’s attorney.
Grudberg added that he and Van de Velde are “still actively considering legal action against Yale.” University administrators canceled Van de Velde’s classes on Jan. 11, 1999, stating that New Haven police had informed them he was a suspect, and that his presence in a classroom would constitute a “major distraction” to his students that would “impair their educational experience.”
Police confirmed for the first time that Van de Velde was a suspect later that day.
In addition to Wearing, the lawsuit named as defendants retired Capt. Brian Sullivan — New Haven’s top detective at the time of the murder — retired Sgt. Edward Kendall, detective Thomas Trocchio, the estate of deceased detective Anthony Dilullo, and other, unspecified officers.
Sullivan and Kendall retired from the NHPD in December 2000 rather than face internal ethics charges stemming from the investigation into the 1996 murder of Philip Cusick. Both men were allegedly involved in hiding evidence from North Haven police, and Sullivan is currently facing charges of hindering an investigation and tampering with evidence.
“Each defendant had the duty and the opportunity to protect [Van de Velde] from the unlawful actions of the other defendant(s), but each defendant failed and refused to perform that duty,” the lawsuit alleges.
In a statement e-mailed to the Yale Daily News, Van de Velde also said police mishandled the investigation from the very beginning.
“The crime was easily solvable,” he said. “The sad fact is that there has never been a competent Jovin murder investigation.”
Van de Velde’s lawsuit alleged that New Haven police “have continued to brand him a suspect” despite recent physical evidence proving his DNA did not match samples taken from underneath Jovin’s fingernails.
Wearing and other New Haven Police Department officials have refused to comment.
Thomas Ude Jr., the city’s corporation counsel, said he had reviewed the charges in the suit and thought Van de Velde had “a very weak case,” particularly in comparison to similar claims made before state courts and the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The research I’ve done doesn’t support the civil rights claims he’s making,” said Ude, whose office is responsible for New Haven’s legal affairs.
“The police who were investigating — Suzanne Jovin’s murder had the goal of solving the crime and not hurting anyone else. That was their focus,” Ude said.
He said the case will now be assigned to one or more city attorneys who will review the claims and determine whether they need to file any legal motions.
Ude added he was almost certain the case would go to trial.
“I think it’s highly unlikely that the city will be settling,” he said.