Ten years ago today, one of my Yale senior essay students, Suzanne Jovin, was stabbed and left for dead on a street corner four blocks from where I was living in New Haven. The investigation into her murder became a circus. Yale and the New Haven Police publicly labeled me a suspect in the crime, only to be forced to admit years later that I wasn’t really a suspect and that DNA, fingerprints, a suspicious van seen at the crime, a man seen running from the scene (confirmed as not me) and a complete lack of motive all excluded me.
In the last 12 months of the now 10-year-old investigation, the team of retired detectives handling the cold case has made two curious public pleas for assistance:
¶ Information regarding who Jovin had borrowed books from the day of her death;
¶ Identification of a man seen running into bushes near the crime scene on Whitney Avenue around the time of her murder (seemingly to avoid being seen).
The first very likely has nothing to do with her murder, though whoever it was perhaps should indeed be discerned and cleared. There is no connection necessarily between the books and the crime.
The second is vitally important, except for the fact that these investigators asked residents of the community to try to identify a man from a police sketch 10 years after the event. Even if someone thought it looked like someone he or she recognizes (10 years ago), no legal case could likely be made against the person.
It is disappointing that investigators would first ask people to look at a sketch of a person seen 10 years ago (in a neighborhood which has likely turned over at least once) to try to make identification, rather than perform all DNA testing possible on the evidence at hand. Further still, of course, if the police ever expect to make an arrest, they will require a forensic link, not an eyewitness claim 10 years after the fact. The only hope is strong DNA and forensic testing.
Since 2004, I have been advocating one simple, cutting-edge forensic test that could very well solve the case. It would be definitive and conclusive.
A soda bottle found at the crime scene had both Suzanne’s fingerprint on it and an unidentified palm print. That palm print is deeply suspicious. Whoever that person is, he or she is absolutely someone who needs to be investigated. The same applies to the DNA under Suzanne’s fingernails. But if the two pieces of evidence share the same DNA, it absolutely is the perpetrator.
A match cannot be innocent because, unless the facts are wrong, there is only one extremely unlikely explanation for how an innocent person’s DNA could be both under her fingernail and on the soda bottle. An innocent friend could not have given Suzanne the soda — someone, say, who she also scraped earlier that day — since Suzanne did not have the soda with her at 9:25 that evening. We know this because an eyewitness claims she had no such soda at 9:25.
Assuming Suzanne did in fact go to Krauzner’s convenience store on York Street (the only place where such soda was sold on campus and right on her route home after visiting Phelps Gate, where she was seen last), the only conceivable “innocent” contact who could have placed his or her DNA both on the soda bottle and underneath her fingernail is a Krauzner’s employee who stocked the soda bottle and somehow was also scraped by Suzanne’s fingernail that evening when she visited. Beyond that extremely unlikely scenario, if the two DNA samples match, the case is solved — absent a name.
There are additional forensic tests that could be performed but which have not been. The DNA found in the blood under her fingernails contained a rare marker. Although it may be hard to make a DNA match, if the marker is found in a database, it may lead to the killer as well. A search for the marker, I understand, would require a manual keyboard search. But this search has not been done to date. Such a search should be performed, not only in Connecticut databases, but also in national databases.
A new technology, “touch DNA” (www.bodetech.com), can discern DNA from skin cells left on clothing but cannot be seen by the naked eye. Suzanne’s clothing most likely came in contact with the killer. This new technology should be applied to her clothing.
And another DNA search should be conducted: “familiar searching,” to search for comparable DNA strands in existing justice databanks. Given that the rare marker found in the DNA under Jovin’s fingernails has not been matched, perhaps the individual who left his or her DNA has never been DNA tested. But often a relative has been. If a strand is found close to the one that is sought, the correct person has often been found.
The now-infamous Jovin case is not a mystery: Investigators had DNA, fingerprints, the tip of the murder weapon, several eyewitnesses of a suspicious van seen at the crime scene, an eyewitness of a suspicious man running into bushes nearby at the time of the crime, videotape inside Krauzner’s and electronic key pass information that tracked Jovin’s campus movements and provided a time line. For years, investigators obfuscated, covered up and misled the Yale and New Haven communities to protect themselves and a murderer.
Now, after 10 years, the only chance for this crime to be solved is, like in the infamous 24-year-old New Haven Penney Serra murder case, for a computer to make a match. And for that to happen, DNA testing and searching has to be performed. It is Suzanne’s only hope for justice.
James Van de Velde is a former lecturer of political science at Yale, a former dean of Saybrook College and a former lieutenant commander in the United States Naval Intelligence (Reserves).