Nearly three years after the murder of Suzanne Jovin ’99, investigators announced last week they will begin requesting DNA samples to compare them with DNA found underneath the fingernails of her left hand.
The method seems perfectly sensible: Use the latest scientific technology to attempt to determine who had contact with Jovin on the night of her murder.
The timing of the announcement, however, has raised eyebrows.
According to last Friday’s written statement, a recent sample from James Van de Velde ’82, Jovin’s thesis advisor and a former Yale political science lecturer, did not match DNA obtained from her body. Van de Velde remains the only named suspect in the investigation, although he has repeatedly asserted his innocence.
This is apparently not the first time Van de Velde was in a position to contribute his DNA. In fact, Van de Velde has said he offered to give New Haven police a DNA sample right from the start.
Van de Velde’s attorney, David Grudberg ’82, said Monday that he was skeptical about the delay between Jovin’s death and last week’s announcement by the police and state’s attorney.
“I find it hard to believe that it took nearly three years to discover this DNA evidence,” Grudberg said.
New Haven State’s Attorney Michael Dearington, who issued Friday’s written statement, declined to comment Monday on the timeliness of the new testing.
Though sophisticated DNA testing is a relatively new method of crime scene analysis, it has been in routine use since about the time of Jovin’s death.
The specific procedure performed on the Jovin sample is known as PCR-STR typing and has had “widespread forensic application” in criminal investigations for nearly three years, said Carl Ladd, the supervisor of forensic biology at the State Police Forensic Sciences Laboratory in Meriden — the same lab that performed the Jovin analysis.
“This is the kind of thing we use in every case,” Ladd said.
Scientists can use this technique to amplify and detect even trace amounts of DNA, amounts that once might have gone unnoticed. According to Friday’s statement, the DNA found underneath Jovin’s fingernails was mixed with so much of her own blood that investigators could not determine the exact nature of the cellular material present, although they did determine conclusively that the DNA came from a male.
Ladd said his laboratory submits reports of scientific testing to the requesting authorities, in this case the New Haven Police Department.
“Once we’re done with it and we return it, it’s out of our hands,” Ladd said.
He said it is “certainly possible” that police had the DNA evidence for some time before they decided to release it to the press.
“If it took so long before the final analysis came in, then I applaud the authorities for quickly making public that the DNA did not come from James Van de Velde,” Grudberg said. “If, on the other hand, it has been months and even years since police first had access to the test results, it is outrageous that this fact has been withheld from the public.”
On Dec. 8, 1998, Jovin was found on the corner of East Rock and Edgehill roads, about a mile from the center of Yale’s campus, suffering from 17 stab wounds.
In January 1999, Yale canceled Van de Velde’s classes for the spring semester at the same time police began to confirm that he was a suspect. Since then, Van de Velde has repeatedly vowed to sue the University and the NHPD for violating his civil rights.
Grudberg would not comment on whether Van de Velde plans to go forward with lawsuits against Yale and the NHPD, but he did say the DNA test results show conclusively that Van de Velde had nothing to do with Jovin’s murder.
“We now have concrete forensic proof eliminating him as a suspect,” Grudberg said.
Dearington declined to comment on Van de Velde’s status as a suspect in the investigation Monday, but New Haven Police Chief Melvin H. Wearing has said as recently as April that Van de Velde remains in a “pool of suspects.”
And given that Friday’s statement said no suspects would be eliminated solely on the basis of the DNA testing, it seems unlikely that he will be removed from that pool in the near future.