After nearly two and a half years of refusing to release information about the Suzanne Jovin ’99 murder investigation, the New Haven Police Department may soon be forced to disclose some or all of its file on the case.
The state Freedom of Information Commission ordered the NHPD to turn over the lengthy file for review after a hearing Monday at which representatives of the Hartford Courant and Jeff Mitchell, a friend of former Yale lecturer James Van de Velde ’82, argued that the NHPD has violated the state FOI law by withholding the file.
Yale officials named Van de Velde, Jovin’s senior essay advisor, as a police suspect in early 1999 when they cancelled his classes for the semester. Mitchell has been following the investigation in an effort to clear Van de Velde and find the killer.
“I’m out to get any information that I think is going to help solve the case,” Mitchell said. “I hope they go through that stuff, and they realize that there is a lot of that information the public should have that might have led to the case being solved a long time ago.”
Barbara Housen, the FOI officer in charge of the case, gave the NHPD two weeks to produce the file. With the aid of other personnel, she will undertake an “in camera” inspection of the hundreds of pages of documents to determine what parts should be released to the public, commission spokesman Tom Hennick said.
Commission rules prevent Housen from speaking to the public about the case while she deliberates, but Hennick said she told him the inspection process will likely take until at least mid-May.
The Connecticut Freedom of Information Act requires that state and local government documents be publicly available upon request, although it also allows for several exceptions.
Law enforcement records can be kept confidential if the information could be used in a “prospective law enforcement action” and would be prejudicial to such an action, or if they contain the names of previously undisclosed witnesses who could face harm as a result.
Assistant State’s Attorney Jim Clark, Assistant New Haven Corporation Counsel Donna Chance Dowdie and Lt. Bryan T. Norwood, head of the NHPD’s detectives unit, argued at the hearing that releasing the documents could put witnesses in danger because the killer is still at large.
“We basically argued that it would disclose the names of witnesses, potential witnesses and informants, and that in general it would prejudice the ongoing investigation and prosecution of this matter,” Dowdie said Tuesday.
Clark, who also argued at the hearing that the office of the state’s attorney is exempt from FOI requirements, did not return phone calls to his office Tuesday.
Exactly what information the Jovin case file contains is unknown, but Mitchell said he believes it could fill in more of the timeline of events on the night of the murder, as well as what investigative steps the NHPD has or has not taken.
“For me I think the most important thing is seeing what information is not there, as opposed to what information is there,” Mitchell said.
Jovin was found stabbed 17 times near the corner of East Rock and Edgehill roads, about two miles north of Old Campus, at about 9:58 p.m. on Dec. 4, 1998. Police said she was murdered only about 20 minutes after last being seen on College Street near Phelps Gate, too far from the crime scene for her to have walked in so short a time.
The file may contain further information about a brown or tan van seen adjacent to the crime scene on the night of the murder, a fact that police confirmed only three weeks ago. New Haven Police Chief Melvin Wearing has declined to say why the police waited over two years before revealing this information.
The file could also confirm the presence of a soda bottle with Jovin’s fingerprints at the scene of the crime, recently reported by the Courant, citing unnamed police sources, in a lengthy magazine-style article about the case and Van de Velde’s continued status as a suspect.
The Courant reported that the specific type of soda was only available nearby at Krauszer’s. Since witnesses who saw Jovin only minutes before the crime occurred said she was not carrying such a bottle, its presence may indicate that she made it all the way up Elm Street to York or even Park Street, where she lived in an off-campus apartment, before voluntarily entering a car or being forced to do so.
“How many people might have seen something suspicious near Krauszer’s that night who never bothered to come forward because they figured Suzanne was two full blocks away and the police had their man anyhow?” Mitchell asked.