James Van de Velde ’82 has been a publicly identified suspect in the murder of Suzanne Jovin ’99 for more than three years. Within days of the murder, Van de Velde, then a lecturer in political science, was identified as a suspect by the local media.
On Dec. 9, 1998, the New Haven Register reported that “according to city and university sources close to the case” the “prime” or “lead” suspect was one of Jovin’s teachers who lived near the scene of the crime and had been questioned on Dec. 7 and Dec. 8.
On Dec. 10, the Register reported that Van de Velde had been questioned by the police for several hours on Dec. 8, thereby identifying him as the “prime” or “lead” suspect mentioned in the previous day’s article.
When those reports first appeared, the New Haven police did not publicly acknowledge Van de Velde was a suspect. Indeed, for a month they refused to acknowledge publicly that he or anyone else was a suspect.
But on Jan. 11, 1999, the first day of the spring semester, Yale issued a statement announcing that it had canceled the two courses Van de Velde was scheduled to teach that semester. In it, the University said the New Haven Police Department had informed it that he was in a “pool of suspects,” and that the police would be “questioning people on campus about him in the coming weeks.”
Later that day, the New Haven police publicly confirmed for the first time that Van de Velde was a suspect. Asked about him, Police Chief Melvin H. Wearing was quoted as saying, “Certainly, he is someone we will be asking questions about.” The NHPD’s spokeswoman was reported as saying “he is in a pool of people we’re looking at,” and that Wearing had been involved in the formulation of Yale’s statement.
There are no legal criteria that must be satisfied in order for the police to consider someone a suspect. They can consider someone a suspect in an investigation for any reason at all. But when Yale and the police publicly identified Van de Velde as a suspect on Jan. 11, 1999, they went beyond that.
In so doing, they accepted the risk that they might cause immense injury to the reputation and livelihood of an innocent person and assumed the potential liability for that injury. In its statement the University said it presumed Van de Velde innocent of any wrongdoing in connection with Jovin’s murder.
But its expression of that presumption did not lessen the risk of, and Yale’s potential liability for, injury to Van de Velde resulting from that statement. The University could not guarantee that those who read or learned of its statement would presume him to be innocent. Nor could it guarantee that its publication of the fact that the police regarded him as a suspect would not cause him injury.
Three years have passed since Van de Velde was first publicly identified as a suspect by Yale and the New Haven police.
The police have not withdrawn or amended their characterization of Van de Velde as a suspect. Indeed, they have repeated it on numerous occasions over the three years. The University has not amended its statement of Jan. 11, 1999.
There can be no doubt whatsoever that the public identification of Van de Velde as a suspect three years ago, and the continuing and unsettled official suspicion of him, have done immense damage to his reputation, including his prior and well-established reputation as an outstanding undergraduate teacher.
Indeed, based on my experience and knowledge with regard to academic appointments, I believe that, barring a public and robust retraction of the suspicion of him, the initial and continuing public identification of him as a suspect has altogether destroyed any opportunity he might otherwise have had for an academic career.
It is conceivable that either the NHPD’s investigation or the Yale investigation, or both, have found some evidentiary basis to support the publicly voiced suspicion of Van de Velde.
But it is also conceivable that one or both investigations have failed to find any evidentiary basis to support that suspicion and have concluded that, whatever its basis, the suspicion of him was not warranted.
If the latter is true, that should be made known. Failure to do so could be regarded as evidence not only of a willingness to cause further injury to Van de Velde but of a deliberate and malicious intent to do so, since that failure would knowingly perpetuate the injury caused by a publicly voiced and continuing suspicion that is now known to be unwarranted.
David Cameron is a professor of political science and director of undergraduate studies for political science.