HARTFORD — The state Freedom of Information Commission voted unanimously yesterday to order the New Haven Police Department to make public the case file from the Suzanne Jovin ’99 murder investigation.
Police will have the opportunity to redact documents in the file to remove sensitive information, however, and it is likely the city will pursue an appeal through the courts.
The Hartford Courant and Jeff Mitchell, a friend of former Yale lecturer James Van de Velde ’82, requested the release of the documents and filed complaints with the FOI Commission last year. The commission made its decision yesterday despite pleas by lawyers for the city and the Jovins, as well as a written request from Jovin’s sister Ellen, to keep the records sealed.
At the hearing, FOI Commissioner Dennis O’Connor echoed many of the comments he made in his original recommendation to publicize the file. He criticized the NHPD for claiming a blanket exemption to the FOI Act under the clause allowing police records to remain confidential if they could be used in a “prospective law enforcement action” or if their release could endanger witnesses.
“I realize we do give the police a certain amount of deference and leeway,” O’Connor said. “But that doesn’t mean they don’t have to produce a thing.”
O’Connor emphasized that the norm is to release government documents and that the burden to prove otherwise fell squarely on police. The commission subsequently accepted his recommendation to release the file, although police will be able to black out portions of the documents that meet the FOI Act exemption.
Even so, the file may not see the light of day for years, if ever. The city’s attorneys have 45 days to appeal the commission’s decision in state Superior Court, and Deputy Corporation Counsel Martin Echter said after the hearing that it was likely they would do so.
O’Connor noted during the hearing that he was surprised how much of the file had already been leaked to the press.
Mitchell has been working with Van de Velde — the only named suspect in the Jovin investigation — in a private effort to solve the case. He said he entirely expects the city to take legal action.
“The NHPD has obviously not been at all forthcoming with information since the inception of the case so I don’t expect them to start now, and thus will appeal,” Mitchell wrote in an e-mail.
Prior to the hearing, Jovin’s sister Ellen submitted a sworn affidavit urging the FOI Commission to reject O’Connor’s recommendation and allow the police to keep portions of the file from public scrutiny. She said it was “incomprehensible” that conversations between her family members and police investigators might potentially enter the public domain.
“I believe the recommendation was ill-informed and is potentially devastating to the future of the investigation into her death,” she said in her affidavit.
The Jovin family’s attorney, David Rosen, expressed similar disapproval after the hearing.
“The committee has made a mistake,” he said. “It’s really a disastrous mistake.”
Jovin, a political science major from Gottingen, Germany, was found nearly half a mile from the Yale campus on Dec. 4, 1998, suffering from multiple stab wounds to her head and back.