The brutal murder of Suzanne Jovin ’99 on Dec. 4, 1998, was as horrific as it was inexplicable. Her friends and family lost a warm, loving woman, and Yale lost a distinguished student and public servant.
The fact that the crime remains unsolved more than three years later is troubling, to say the least. The New Haven Police Department has identified only a single man — James Van de Velde ’82, a former political science lecturer who served as Jovin’s thesis adviser — out of what Police Chief Melvin H. Wearing repeatedly called a “pool of suspects,” and investigators have failed to muster any evidence against him.
From the start, Van de Velde vehemently denied any involvement in Jovin’s slaying. Now, through a lawsuit filed last month, he has taken on the NHPD directly. He alleges that police bungled the investigation, quickly latched onto him as a suspect, and refused to consider alternatives — and then publicly named him a suspect for no discernible reason, violating his civil rights.
It is clear that three years of investigation by New Haven police, and now a private detective hired by Yale, have revealed little. It took over two years for the NHPD to reveal the existence of a tan van seen near the murder, and nearly three years for investigators to collect DNA samples and compare them with evidence found under Jovin’s fingernails — Van de Velde’s DNA did not match.
Furthermore, the disgraceful departures of two of the NHPD’s top detectives have fueled allegations that the Jovin case has been mishandled. Former Capt. Brian Sullivan — who headed the NHPD’s detective division and the Jovin investigation — will stand trial on charges that he deliberately hid evidence from North Haven police in another case.
Meanwhile, the Jovin investigation remains stalled. Van de Velde has not been charged with the crime, no evidence has ever been released indicating he was responsible for Jovin’s murder — and yet no other suspects have been named.
An important question remains disturbingly unanswered: Whatever happened to Wearing’s “pool” of suspects?
It seems there are only two possibilities. Either the NHPD made up the existence of such a “pool” –Êan outright lie that would demonstrate extreme corruption — or the department has investigated other suspects without revealing their identities. If this is the case, the police have acted irresponsibly and unfairly to Van de Velde, whether or not they have violated his civil rights.
Wearing and the NHPD have tried to have it both ways — they have decided which suspects to name and, apparently, which not to name, despite failing to show any evidence against anyone. For both their seemingly shoddy investigative skills and their unquestionably poor judgement, Wearing and his officers owe the public an explanation for three years of selective silence about this still-unsolved case.
The courts will decide the merits of Van de Velde’s case from a legal standpoint. From a moral and ethical one, however, it is clear that the police have come up short.