City appeals release order for Jovin file

The city of New Haven filed an eleventh-hour appeal in state Superior Court Friday to keep thousands of pages from the case file of the Suzanne Jovin ’99 murder investigation out of the public eye, saying that airing portions of the file would put potential witnesses’ lives at risk and help Jovin’s assailants escape justice.

The appeal, written by Deputy Corporation Counsel Martin S. Echter on behalf of the New Haven Police Department and Chief Melvin H. Wearing, contested the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission decision that ordered the release of approximately 4,000 pages of documents pertaining to the Jovin investigation.

The appeal said such an action would significantly impair the NHPD’s continuing investigation into Jovin’s death. Echter also requested a court-ordered stay of the commission’s decision in order to keep the files under wraps until the appeal is actually heard.

State’s Attorney Michael Dearington filed a virtually identical appeal at the end of March.

In the NHPD appeal, Echter wrote that releasing the contested portion of the Jovin file “would risk death or serious bodily injury to potential witnesses and informants” and “would compromise the ability of law enforcement to apprehend the murderer of Suzanne Jovin.”

NHPD spokeswoman Judith Mongillo declined to comment, deferring all questions to Echter, who did not return phone calls Monday.

Nearly a year ago, the Hartford Courant and Jeffrey Mitchell, a friend of former Yale lecturer James Van de Velde ’82 — still the only named suspect in the investigation — asked independently to view the Jovin file and were each denied access by the NHPD. They each filed a complaint with the FOI Commission against the NHPD, alleging that the NHPD’s rejections were unlawful in light of the state Freedom of Information Act, which requires the release of government documents in most cases.

Hearing Officer Barbara Housen ruled against Mitchell and the Courant, saying the file fell under an exemption allowing police records to be kept confidential if the information could be used in a prospective law enforcement action or if its release could endanger witnesses.

But in February 2002, months after the entire commission voted to re-examine the file, FOI Commissioner Dennis E. O’Connor reviewed the contested material and recommended that portions of it be released. He said that the NHPD had no basis for claiming that the entire file should be exempt from disclosure and that the department failed to show that the investigation was still ongoing.

In mid-February, the commission unanimously accepted O’Connor’s recommendation and ordered the documents’ release.

Both Echter and Dearington called O’Connor’s ruling “arbitrary” and “capricious” and accused the commission of violating its own rules in considering O’Connor’s recommendation because Housen, the original hearing officer, was not present when the commission voted to accept it.

The appeal is scheduled to be heard April 30 in New Haven Superior Court.

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