To the Editor:
The News is to be commended for the magazine article that appeared on Feb. 5 regarding the investigation of the murder of Suzanne Jovin ’99 and the continuing suspicion cast upon James Van de Velde ’82, at the time a lecturer in political science, one of Jovin’s teachers, and the adviser of her senior essay.
There are, however, several factual inaccuracies in the article.
First, the article states that Van de Velde was fired from Yale. That is wrong. He had a one-year appointment as a lecturer. As often happens with such appointments, it was not renewed.
Second, the article states that I said that Yale’s decision to cancel Van de Velde’s spring 1999 classes just before the start of the semester ruined his life. It was not the decision to cancel his classes that has caused such immense damage to him but the fact that Yale issued a public statement that said it had been informed by the New Haven police that he was in a “pool of suspects”. Prior to that announcement on Jan. 11, 1999 the police had not publicly identified him as a suspect; even after Yale’s announcement, the New Haven Police chief and spokeswoman did not use the word “suspect” in referring to him.
Both prior to that announcement and in the five years since, the police investigation has produced no evidence — physical, forensic or circumstantial — linking Van de Velde to the murder. In late 2000, two retired New York homicide investigators — one of whom worked on the notorious “Son of Sam” case, the other renowned for his work on “cold” cases — were brought into the investigation, paid by Yale and given full access to the investigation. Over the course of two years, they found no evidence linking Van de Velde to the murder. What has caused him such immense damage over the past five years is not the fact that Yale cancelled his classes, but the fact that it publicly identified him as a suspect and then — even after years of intensive investigation, including by investigators it had retained, had failed to produce any evidence of his involvement in the murder — refused (and still refuses) to say that its investigators found no evidence that he murdered Jovin.
Third, the article quotes me with regard to the competence or lack thereof exhibited in the investigation. I was the chairman of the department in 1998 and assisted the Yale and New Haven Police in various ways in the weeks and months after the murder. The Yale Police were highly professional in their conduct of the investigation and exercised excellent judgment as they investigated the many leads and tips they received. The New Haven Police likewise were professional and dedicated to solving the case, and I have no doubt they did the best they could in a difficult investigation.
But the fact remains that a number of mistakes were made in the investigation:
– Henry Lee, the world-renowned forensic scientist, often says the first and most important thing in solving a case such as this is the existence of a good crime scene. The crime scene in this case was not well preserved. An officer who was at the scene later said it was “atrocious” from a forensics point of view. People milled about and walked — even drove — through the crime scene that evening and the next day.
– Lee, at the time the state commissioner of public safety and head of the state police forensic lab, called the New Haven Police late in the evening of the murder and offered his assistance and that of his staff. His offer was rejected.
– Lee offered to reconstruct the crime. Eventually, after the New Haven Police had refused for nearly two years to provide materials he had requested for the reconstruction, he abandoned the effort.
– A Fresca soda bottle was found at the scene with Jovin’s fingerprints and a partial print from someone else. According to a classmate who talked with her in the Old Campus only a half-hour before she was murdered two miles away, she did not have a soda bottle. If true, she must have purchased it after leaving the Old Campus and just before encountering the person who drove her to the vicinity of the crime scene and murdered her. By identifying immediately where the soda was purchased, the police might have been able to find witnesses who saw her buying the soda or even encountering the murderer. And they might have been able to rule in or out store employees as the source of the partial print. But they did not do that. More than a month after the murder, they were still uncertain where the soda was purchased. The source of the partial print has never been found.
– Witnesses saw a full-sized tan or light brown van parked in the road immediately adjacent to where Jovin was found, at a place where motor vehicles are very seldom if ever parked. But once the police decided Van de Velde was their suspect, they forgot about the van. It was only more than two years later, after the Yale investigators entered the case, that the police asked for the assistance of the public in finding the van. It has never been found.
– Scrapings from Jovin’s fingernails contained blood. It was not until more than two years later that the scrapings were tested for DNA, by which time any DNA would have begun to disintegrate. Minute traces of a male’s DNA from epithelial cells were found in the blood. The DNA did not match Van de Velde’s.
– Earlier in the evening of Dec. 4, 1998, Jovin had participated in a pizza-making party for the Yale Best Buddies. The non-Yale participants were the clients and staff of the organization that provides living assistance to the clients. According to the person who coordinated arrangements between the organization’s clients and the Yale Buddies, as many as 19 staff personnel may have known something about the arrangements involved in the pizza party. When I spoke with her more than two years after the murder, neither she nor as far as she knew any of the other staff had been interviewed by the police.
– Potential witnesses living in the area were never interviewed.
– Posters seeking the assistance of the public did not appear until nearly three weeks after the murder. According to a member of the Jovin family, the posters used an old picture. They contained no information as to her height, weight, hair coloring and clothes. They would, therefore, have been of little use to anyone who might have seen her that evening but did not know her.
Fourth, the article quotes the New Haven State’s Attorney, Michael Dearington, as saying the Jovin case is an “ongoing case” and not a “cold” case. As I pointed out in a News Op-Ed in December (“Chief state’s attorney should enter Jovin case” 12/10/03) that called upon the chief state’s attorney to bring the state’s “cold case unit” into the investigation, the CSA’s office does not define a “cold” case as one that is no longer being investigated. Rather, it defines a “cold” case as one that remains unsolved after a long period of time. By that criterion, the Jovin case certainly is a “cold” case. Indeed, Henry Lee publicly declared it to be a “cold” case more than three years ago!
February 6, 2004
The writer is a professor in the Political Science Department. He was a member of the New Haven Civilian Review Board in 2001-03.