Judge closes Jovin files to public

Approximately 4,500 pages of documents related to the murder of Suzanne Jovin ’99 remain closed to the public, following a judge’s decision regarding the much-debated case files.

In a memorandum of the decision filed on Oct. 31 in New Britain Superior Court, Judge George Levine cited “unlawful procedure” in reversing the decision of Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Commission, which previously ordered the New Haven Police Department to open portions of the case file to the public.

Levine’s ruling follows four independent appeals by the New Haven Police Chief Melvin H. Wearing and New Haven State’s Attorney Michael Dearington to keep the documents out of the public eye.

The documents in question concern the 1998 slaying of Jovin, then a senior political science major in Davenport College. Jovin was found on the night of Dec. 4 about 1.5 miles from Yale’s campus in New Haven’s wealthy East Rock neighborhood — an area heavily populated by Yale faculty. She was found with 17 stab wounds to her back and neck.

The only suspect named in the case is James Van de Velde ’82, who at the time was Jovin’s senior thesis advisor and a lecturer in the political science department. Van de Velde, who now holds a position at the Department of Defense, recently sued the NHPD, alleging the department violated his civil rights by refusing to retract the suspect label even though Van de Velde has not been charged for any crime.

“It is found that substantial rights of the chief and of Dearington have been prejudiced by the decisions of the [FOI] commission, which were made upon unlawful procedure. Therefore, each of the four appeals [made by the chief and by Dearington] before the court is sustained,” Levine said in the memorandum.

Representatives of the city’s corporation counsel, which represents the NHPD, were not available for comment.

Previously, the FOI Commission ordered the NHPD to make the documents available for public inspection. This decision occurred after Jeffrey Mitchell, a longtime friend of Van de Velde, and Les Gura, city editor of the Hartford Courant, filed independent requests with the NHPD to obtain everything the police department possessed regarding the Jovin murder, including copies of papers and a tape recording.

According to the memorandum, the requests made by Mitchell and by Gura were denied by Wearing, who wrote in his reply that “[r]elease of information regarding this on-going murder investigation would be prejudicial to future law enforcement action and could compromise the safety of individuals who have provided information to police.”

Mitchell and Gura then individually appealed the NHPD’s denials to the FOI Commission. The commission assigned Barbara Housen as the hearing officer responsible for reviewing the appeals. After hearing testimony from Lt. Bryan Norwood of the NHPD and reviewing the 4,500 pages in question, Housen recommended to the FOI Commission that Mitchell’s and Gura’s appeals be denied.

But the commission rejected Housen’s recommendation and designated FOI Commissioner Dennis O’Connor as the second hearing officer.

According to the memorandum, O’Connor “ordered the chief to disclose the requested materials, with any appropriate redactions.” The FOI Commission adopted O’Connor’s decision and ordered the NHPD to open the papers to public review.

Levine said the main point of contention was that O’Connor was not present to hear Norwood’s testimony and yet deemed it “not credible” anyway. This alleged lack of credibility contributed to O’Connor’s recommendation to the FOI Commission to force the NHPD to make many of the requested documents available for public scrutiny.

Levine stated in the memorandum that O’Connor’s consideration of Norwood’s testimony violates a particular rule in the Regulations of Connecticut State Agencies, which states “No oral testimony or argument shall become a part of the record or form a basis for any finding of the hearing officer unless the hearing officer is present in the place where the hearing is being conducted and personally hears or receives the testimony and argument there offered.”

Mitchell said he will keep trying to make public the Jovin file and will file another FOI request.

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