Four and a half years after the murder of Suzanne Jovin ’99, former Yale political science professor James Van de Velde ’82 added several top Yale administrators to his federal civil rights lawsuit two weeks ago, but law professors said Van de Velde’s chances of success are slim.
Lawyers said Van de Velde, who is the only named suspect in the murder investigation, will have difficulty winning his case because Yale is a private university and it is therefore more difficult to show — as Van de Velde must — that administrators acted in “bad faith” during the investigation. In addition, law professors said Yale administrators could defend themselves by arguing that they relied on information from the police. Van de Velde may win if he can prove that University officials treated him with “bad faith and maliciousness,” law professors said.
Van de Velde originally filed suit in December 2001 against New Haven Police Chief Melvin H. Wearing and several other current and former police officers. He amended his suit to name Yale President Richard Levin, University Secretary Linda Lorimer, Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead, Yale Deputy Director of Public Affairs Thomas Conroy, and Yale Police Chief James Perrotti among the defendants.
Levin, Lorimer and Brodhead declined to comment, but Office of Public Affairs Director Helaine Klasky said in a statement that officials are “not surprised” by the suit.
“We believe that Yale officials acted entirely properly throughout the investigation,” Klasky said. “When all the facts are set forth, I believe that it will be clear that the Yale administration acted in the best interests of our students and the institution.”
Yale law professor Steven Duke said suits like Van de Velde’s generally do not fare well.
“It is extraordinary that somebody recovers damages when law enforcement or someone else having interest in the matter labels them a suspect,” Duke said. “I am not aware of any such case. And in this case — at least [officials and police] were suggesting there might be other suspects.”
Yale law professor Robert Gordon said in an e-mail that because the University was responding to the police’s treatment of Van de Velde as a serious suspect in the case, his suit against Yale officials “would not appear to be very strong,” even though he may have been wronged.
“The police method of using leaks that are terribly damaging to someone’s reputation as a means of investigation seems to me indefensible,” Gordon said. “If he is innocent, as in the absence of any real evidence against him we must assume he is, what has happened to him is a terrible tragedy — but that doesn’t necessarily mean there is a legal remedy for the harm caused.”
Because Yale is a private university, the dynamics of the suit are complex, Columbia law professor George Bermann ’67 said.
“Conceivably, [Van de Velde] may have some arguments that his due process rights were violated, but since Yale is a private university, he would have some burden in demonstrating that due process guarantees do avail him in his claims against Yale and its officials,” Bermann said. “He would have to demonstrate that Yale and, or, its officials failed to exercise reasonable care in the fashion in which they investigated and dealt with the publicity surrounding this case.”
Duke said he believes naming Van de Velde as a suspect was an accurate statement because police and University officials did believe it to be true. Duke said if Van de Velde can prove that officials continued to refer to him as a suspect when he should have been free from such accusation, he may win the suit.
“What he might be able to argue is that later on, after his possibility was thoroughly investigated and no evidence turned up against him, that to continue to call him a suspect was dishonest — and therefore [Van de Velde could claim officials and officers] maliciously libeled him subsequently to the original announcement,” Duke said.
Duke said University officials could say they relied on information from the police.
“[Yale officials] can say ‘We told the truth as we know it,’” Duke said. “And unlike the police, perhaps, their subsequent position might still withstand the claim that [naming Van de Velde as a suspect] was malicious and knowingly false, because again they could say, ‘We relied on the police.’”
In a Yale Daily News guest column April 22, Van de Velde said he is suing the officials “in order to hold them accountable” for the “injury” they caused him.
“By publicly branding me a ‘suspect’ (again) in January 1999, Yale University caused immense and irreparable damage (again) to the investigation and to my reputation and ended my career,” Van de Velde said.