A state Freedom of Information commissioner has recommended that thousands of pages of the New Haven Police case file on the Suzanne Jovin ’99 murder investigation be released to the public in accordance with state law.
In a 22-paragraph recommendation, FOI Commissioner Dennis E. O’Connor said New Haven police erred in denying the public access to the majority of the file, including a tape of a 911 call made to police on the night of Jovin’s murder. O’Connor explained in detail that New Haven Police Chief Melvin H. Wearing’s department tried but ultimately failed in its difficult job of “balancing the public’s right to know against the need to maintain the integrity of his department’s investigations.”
The full FOI Commission will hear the case Feb. 13 and make a final decision on the matter.
“This is a tentative ruling,” said New Haven Corporation Counsel Thomas Ude, whose office provides legal counsel to city agencies. “We intend to be there and argue against this disclosure.”
Now in its fourth year, the Jovin investigation has yet to turn up any suspects other than Jovin’s thesis advisor, James Van de Velde ’82, then a Yale political science lecturer. Still the only named suspect in the case, Van de Velde has maintained his innocence and has never been charged with the murder.
The Hartford Courant and Jeff Mitchell, Van de Velde’s childhood friend, filed separate complaints against the NHPD that have since been heard jointly by the FOI Commission. The original hearing officer to review the case, Barbara Housen, ruled that none of the extensive NHPD file should be released.
In an October hearing, the commission agreed to re-examine the case after an appeal by Mitchell and the Courant’s attorney, Ralph Elliot.
The Connecticut Freedom of Information Act requires that state and local government documents be publicly available upon request, although it allows for several exceptions. Police records can be kept confidential if the information could be used in a “prospective law enforcement action” or if their release could endanger witnesses or informants.
City attorneys and police have argued that the entire case file falls under these exceptions.
“In this, as in other open criminal investigations, nondisclosure is necessary to preserve the ability of law enforcement to do an effective job,” Ude said.
But O’Connor, while allowing police to redact the file as necessary to comply with the exceptions, clearly disagreed that the entire file should be withheld.
“The commission wishes to express its displeasure with the [NHPD’s] decision in this case to claim a blanket exemption to disclosure and then simply unload the thousand of pages of in camera records on the commission for it to review and determine which, if any, are exempt,” O’Connor said in his recommendation.
Mitchell said that the reversal is long overdue and that he is eager to examine the contents of the file.
“I want to see the Jovin case files — to learn what the police knew and when, and then why they apparently withheld what they knew from the public,” Mitchell said in an e-mail.
Mitchell added that he wants “to learn to what lengths the NHPD went to twist and distort what they learned in order to persist the innuendo in the media that Jim was actually a viable suspect.”
Wearing and other NHPD officials were unavailable for comment over the weekend.
Mitchell said he was also interested in Yale’s role in the investigation — New Haven police first confirmed that Van de Velde was a suspect the same day that Yale canceled his classes in January 1999.
“I’m, of course, very much interested in Yale’s complicity in tossing professor Van de Velde to the wolves,” Mitchell said. “Seems to me that Yale was more interested in squelching a distraction than solving a murder.”
After the FOI hearing in February, the NHPD will be given a set date by which they must make public the records in question. If the department wishes, it can appeal the ruling by suing the FOI Commission in state court, perhaps all the way to the Connecticut Supreme Court.
“We’re willing to go there if we have to,” Ude said.
–Staff Reporter James Collins contributed to this story.