On Dec. 4, 1998, Suzanne Jovin ’99 was murdered. For those who were part of the Yale community four years ago, Dec. 4 will always be a terribly sad day, a day on which we recall our shock and horror and bewilderment, and think of the grief of her friends and, above all, the anguish of her family.
Four years of police investigation have not solved the mystery of who killed Jovin. As the investigation enters its fifth year we must ask, yet again, why not? How is it possible someone could walk through the campus at 9:15 p.m. on a Friday and be murdered only a half hour later in a residential area two miles away — and yet, four years later, the police still have not found the killer?
It is not as if they didn’t have a great deal of information to work with. At least two acquaintances saw her in the vicinity of the Old Campus and Phelps Gate at about 9:20 p.m. that evening. Several people in the immediate vicinity of the crime scene were close enough to hear her screams as she was attacked half an hour later. Some of the people who heard her screams ran immediately to her and the police were called within minutes. Several people saw a van parked in the road immediately adjacent to where she was found — a place where motor vehicles are seldom, if ever, parked. A soda bottle with her fingerprints on it was found at the scene; depending on when and where it was purchased, it might have provided a clue as to where she encountered the killer. Minute traces of male DNA were found under the fingernails of her left hand. A piece of the murder weapon was found in her body.
Yet despite all of that, the killer remains on the loose. One can only wonder what might have happened if the local law enforcement authorities had requested the assistance one or two or three years ago of the special cold case unit of the chief state’s attorney’s office. Since its creation in 1998, that unit has compiled an outstanding record in a number of difficult-to-solve homicide investigations.
As the investigation enters its fifth year, it is appropriate to consider, also, the plight of James Van de Velde ’82, a lecturer in the Political Science Department who was one of Jovin’s teachers and her senior essay adviser.
On Dec. 9, 1998, the New Haven Register reported that, according to city and University sources close to the case, one of her teachers who lived near the crime scene was the prime or lead suspect and had been questioned by the police on two occasions the previous two days. The article did not identify the teacher. But an article in the paper the next day 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.
On Jan. 11, 1999, in announcing the cancellation of Van de Velde’s two spring semester classes, Yale’s Office of Public Affairs stated that the University had been informed by the New Haven police 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 he was in the pool of suspects. Chief Melvin Wearing was quoted as saying, “Certainly, he is someone we will be asking questions about.” (Although he also said, “We can’t call him the prime suspect. We have not singled him out. There are other people who also had contact with the victim.”) The New Haven police spokeswoman was quoted as saying, “We have certainly not identified him as a prime suspect, but he is in a pool of people we’re looking at.” She went on to say Wearing had been involved in the formulation of Yale’s statement.
Almost four years have passed since city and Yale officials revealed, first to the local media and subsequently to the world, that the police regarded Van de Velde as a suspect.
Notwithstanding the University’s assertion in its January 1999 statement that it presumed him to be innocent, its revelation that the police regarded him as a suspect and the subsequent acknowledgement of that by the police caused immense damage to his reputation and employability. The fact that the University never amended or updated that statement on the basis of the information pertaining to Van de Velde that it received from the two private investigators it retained two years ago has only aggravated that damage.
It would be exceptionally naive to imagine the local law enforcement authorities, or the Yale investigators for that matter, might say anything to remove the pall of suspicion that has hung over Van de Velde for the past four years as long as the crime remains unsolved. From them, exoneration is likely to come only if and when someone is arrested and convicted.
But Yale should nevertheless recognize and accept its responsibility for the damage done to Van de Velde’s reputation and employability by its revelations that the police regarded him as a suspect. It should have the moral backbone to acknowledge that the investigators it retained two years ago have found no evidence linking him to the murder and, indeed, nothing to support the early suspicion of him that its officials revealed to the local media and the world in the days and weeks after Dec. 4, 1998.
David R. Cameron is a professor of political science. He is the director of undergraduate studies and was chairman of the department in 1998.