Five years later, James Van de Velde ’82 is still a suspect in the gruesome 1998 murder of Suzanne Jovin ’99, and as of last week, he is asking the University as well as the police to pay for aspersions he will carry forever as a result. Two years ago, Van de Velde, who had been Jovin’s thesis advisor, filed a federal suit against the New Haven Police Department for naming him as one of what they repeatedly called “a pool of suspects,” though they never released any other names. As of April 3, the former political science lecturer and dean of Saybrook College has expanded his suit to include top Yale officials, extending potential legal culpability to where ethical questions still linger.
University administrators cancelled Van de Velde’s classes several weeks after newspaper leaks identified him as a suspect, and officials declined to renew his contract with Yale when it came up for review at the end of the year. He left New Haven shortly thereafter and returned, with top secret clearance status, to the intelligence work he had done before coming to teach at Yale. Considering these circumstances, a judge recently granted Van de Velde’s request to include President Levin, Secretary Lorimer, Dean Brodhead and Office of Public Affairs Director Tom Conroy — whose bumbling of a 20/20 interview in the aftermath of the event brought all parties no small amount of anguish — in the suit, which alleges Yale and New Haven violated his civil rights in their handling of the case.
It is possible, as the most cynical observers have argued, that University officials had no practical choice but to act as they did when faced with the implications of Van de Velde’s status as a suspect. It is possible, too, that Yale violated no laws in doing so. We believe, though, that the University should be held to standards higher than just legality and then at least some aspects of its handling of the case — particularly those involving the media — may be pragmatically appropriate but are ethically unsatisfying. Irrespective of its outcome, Van de Velde’s suit has revived what, as the investigation stalled and news dried up, became dormant concerns about how Yale responded to largely unsubstantiated allegations against one of its own.
Even with five years of hindsight, it is still unclear whether the University acted reasonably in dealing with Van de Velde, though we may know soon whether it acted legally. What is clear now, though, is that no lawsuit will undo what being the lone named suspect in the Jovin case has done to James Van de Velde’s reputation and his life. No matter the cash settlement or the verdict of the suit, he will face suspicion always. And always, barring a decisive solution to the investigation that at this point would be akin to a miracle, Van de Velde — and all of us — will have cause to hold suspect the actions of New Haven police and the reactions in Woodbridge Hall.