Rachel Boyd’s article “Nine years later, murder of Yale senior still unsolved” (12/12/07) is yet another reminder of the moral issues that loom large in the endless tragedy of Suzanne Jovin’s death on Dec. 4, 1998.
What really caught my eye were the comments by “one Yale staff member.” This person, I assume, is not a low-level functionary but someone high enough in the administration to be considered an informed source by the reporter.
He or she, once guaranteed anonymity, feels quite free to attack James Van de Velde with unconscionable insinuations. This person is not at all impressed by the reality that no evidence or motive or history of wrongdoing has ever connected Suzanne’s thesis adviser to the Jovin killing.
The fact that Van de Velde’s DNA does not match the DNA found under Suzanne’s fingernails is no big deal, the protected source insists. He still could have been involved: “I don’t know if he did it or not, but I’m sure he was capable.”
We are offered a glimpse of a mindset that may reach all the way to the top of the Yale hierarchy. It reveals an attitude, still in place after nine years, which says, “We don’t have to admit we were wrong about Van de Velde because he has yet to prove his innocence. If the crime is never solved, the problem goes away.”
Because I am quoted in Rachel’s article and am known as a critic of the law enforcement for the travesties of the Jovin murder investigation, let me put things personally.
Connecticut’s nationally publicized 1973-77 Peter Reilly murder case compelled me to make a career shift from reporting foreign affairs to privately investigating the rampant wrongful convictions of our highly imperfect criminal justice system.
The Reilly saga, as told in my book “Guilty Until Proven Innocent,” is now well established as a classic “wrong man” false confession case. It remains this state’s most controversial (and still unsolved) murder case ever.
Truly remarkable was the way people in the northwest corner of Litchfield County reacted after Peter, 18, was convicted for the savage slaying of his mother. He had “admitted” his guilt during a highly coercive round-the-clock State Police interrogation.
Common sense told just about everyone in Falls Village and the surrounding small towns that Peter was innocent, that the cops and prosecutors had got it wrong. There was no evidence, no motive, no bad-boy history, just the dubious confession and the police failure to look at far more likely suspects.
So money was raised to keep him out of prison while his conviction was appealed. Peter returned to the regional high school for a successful senior year with the blessing of the faculty, staff, students and parents. Two years later, following a judge’s ruling that he had suffered “a grave injustice,” Peter was exonerated when it was found that the authorities had falsified the evidence against him.
Now compare this with James Van de Velde’s experience at Yale as a popular lecturer and “straight arrow” Navy reserve officer. Once the New Haven police leaked the story about a Yale academic being in their sights, and once the University publicly identified him, unnecessarily, Van de Velde’s reputation and career were destroyed.
The administration removed him from classroom teaching on the excuse that his presence would be a distraction to the students. In contrast, Reilly, wearing the brand of a convicted killer, was never considered a distraction to the tender teenagers in the boondocks. It is noteworthy that a key decision-maker, Dean of Yale College Richard Brodhead, went on to the presidency of Duke University, there to preside over the mishandling of false rape accusations hurled at several lacrosse team members.
When Van de Velde was let go by Yale in 1999, it was already obvious that the police and prosecutors had botched the homicide investigation big time. Yet as the years rolled by, common decency as well as common sense never clicked in.
To this day, even with the New Haven state’s attorney’s recent announcement that “no person is a suspect in the crime,” the powers that be at Yale have never put things right with an acknowledgment that they have done great damage to one of their own.
Donald S. Connery is the author of “Guilty Until Proven Innocent.”