|Re: 12/4/05 - Hartford Courant: Pride & Prejudice In New Haven |
Pride & Prejudice In New Haven
By DONALD S. CONNERY
December 4 2005
"I can't think of a more important task than solving cold cases. We must develop and use every crime-solving tool we have available." - Gov. M. Jodi Rell, Nov. 21.
This December day in 1998 was the last day in the life of Suzanne Jovin.
The bright and beautiful 21-year-old Yale senior was up and about after 5 that morning. As if impatient for a future of great accomplishments, she was a whirlwind of activity during the next 17 hours.
Just before 10 that night in New Haven, her body was found lying face down at the side of a quiet street in the wealthy East Rock neighborhood less than two miles from the university's central campus. Someone had stabbed her 17 times in her back, neck and head.
Seven years later, Suzanne Jovin's killer remains at large. The crime has not been solved. Little about the investigation has been made public for years. It seems stalled. Yet authorities tell me the detectives are not stymied, the hunt goes on, and this case is not so cold that it needs fresh minds and a whole new approach.
Call me a skeptic. The police and prosecutors blinded themselves at the start by focusing on a single suspect whose innocence should have been seen as obvious in the first days and weeks. Such blinkered thinking, deepened by an unwillingness to admit error and change course, is a frequent factor of unsolved cases and is the hallmark of virtually every "wrong man" miscarriage of justice.
Wallowing in denial, they have gone in circles ever since. Yes, detectives have knocked on doors, checked alibis, ordered forensic tests, followed up on leads and kept track of people who might know something. But inertia set in long ago.
The New Haven police chief then, Melvin Wearing, has been replaced. Capt. Brian Sullivan and Sgt. Ed Kendall, key investigators, were forced into early retirement because of a scandal that arose from a separate homicide. Another investigator died. These days, the Jovin investigation, supervised by New Haven Assistant State's Attorney James Clark, is pretty much left to a single detective, Michael Quinn, in between other chores.
Over the years there have been mistakes (beginning at the crime scene), a rush to judgment, an absence of imagination and the erosive effects of ego, pride, territorial concerns and misplaced institutional loyalties.
Result: a close-mouthed parochialism that fails to fully engage the state's increasingly sophisticated investigative resources. Worse, the cops and prosecutors have not fully enlisted the help of the public despite the unusually large but seldom publicized $150,000 reward.
Fortunately, there is a way out of this dead end.
But first, you should ask: Why is this case about an Ivy League golden girl so special? Why not draw attention to the unsolved killings of the many other young victims of violence in Connecticut, usually less white and less privileged?
It hardly needs saying that each life is valuable and each death tragic. Even a child born and bred in the meanest of circumstances has great possibilities. Murder victims and their families deserve justice equally. But reality intrudes. The public imagination is drawn to class, fame, power, wealth and the promise of lurid disclosures. Or sometimes a particular death evokes a powerful sense of loss going beyond family and friends.
The slaying of Suzanne Jovin was bound to attract exceptional press and public interest. She was a dazzling undergraduate at one of the world's leading universities. Born in Gottingen, Germany, to U.S. scientists Thomas and Donna Jovin, raised there in a 14th-century castle, she was vastly talented. She spoke four languages. Even as a teenager she had greater experience in other countries and cultures than the man being groomed to become our 43rd president.
Energetically pursuing a double major in political science and international studies, Jovin seemed destined for a life of public service. She would be at the center of the nation's greatest modern challenge to its security. Nearly three years before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, she produced a formidable senior thesis on international terrorist Osama bin Laden.
Just as impressive was her commitment to the social good. A friend has told of her "very, very strong sense of justice and righteousness." She tutored urban children. From the start of her freshman year to her last hours, she devoted herself to the Yale chapter of Best Buddies, joining other students in bringing friendship and joy to the lives of adults with mental disabilities.
Picture her final hours in this labor of love: directing a Best Buddies pizza-making party at Trinity Lutheran Church, driving home the volunteers, returning the borrowed car to the university, turning in the keys to the campus police, then, at about 9:30, walking into the night and an encounter with a madman.
Even so, it was not the heartbreaking death of an outstanding young woman that made the Jovin case a national story through the first year of her death. For the Connecticut press as well as the New York Times, Time, Vanity Fair, 20/20, Court TV, CNN and the other big media, the compelling force was the flood of speculation, with undertones of romance, obsession and anger, about a student-professor relationship gone wrong.
The permanent coupling of the homicide with a case of false accusation began within a week of the crime with the local headline "Educator Grilled in Jovin Matter." Thereafter, the victim's name was linked to that of her thesis adviser, James Van de Velde, one of the university's most popular lecturers.
A 38-year-old Yale graduate and former dean of Saybrook, one of Yale's residential colleges, his class on the national security dimensions of international drug trafficking had been cited by Spin magazine as among the most interesting college courses in the country.
As an officer in the U.S. Naval Intelligence Reserve, he had worked at the Pentagon and the State Department. He had carried out assignments everywhere from Bosnia to Singapore. Born and raised in Orange, still a bachelor, he was a handsome, politically conservative "straight arrow" with a sterling reputation.
With the avalanche of publicity about his possible guilt, based mostly on police leaks, rumor and conjecture, Van de Velde's good name was destroyed. In the words of a Courant headline, he went "From Pillar to Pariah." Never mind that no hint of any relationship with the victim outside the classroom ever surfaced. Never mind the absence of any history of violence. His academic career came down in flames.
In a grave lapse of conscience, Yale itself, putting out his name as one in a supposed "pool of suspects" even before the official police statement, subsequently canceled his political science classes just hours before the start of the next semester on the excuse that his students should be spared distractions.
When I read this, I thought about Peter Reilly. He was the central figure of Connecticut's nationally famous "wrong man" case of the mid-1970s. Although his mother's death was the most savage homicide in Litchfield County history, the teenager was released from prison during the appeal of his conviction. The "confessed killer," eventually exonerated, returned to our regional high school for his senior-year classes. No distractions were expected or reported.
With his lectures abruptly ended, his teaching contract unlikely to be renewed, Van de Velde's days at Yale were numbered. The university said it was willing to recommend him to other institutions but would have to note that he was under suspicion for murder. His academic opportunities vanished. Quinnipiac College had already added to his woes by expelling him from its master's program in broadcast journalism.
An independent investigator, Patrick Harnett, now Hartford's police chief, has described Van de Velde as "Richard Jewell with a Ph.D.," referring to the security guard mistakenly targeted by the FBI and defamed in the press for the Atlanta Olympics bombing in 1996. The great oddity about Van de Velde's situation now, as it has been for seven years, is that he is both "the only named suspect" in the Jovin murder and the citizen who has been more active than anyone else in trying to keep the case alive and demanding a solution to the crime.
These days, the typical individual in his predicament - usually suspected of terrorism or espionage - is known as "a person of interest." As if imagined by Kafka, the suspect is "outed" as a suspect but usually not arrested and never cleared. As his good name is sliced and diced, the state provides no evidence of guilt, only ripe speculation and whispered hints of odd behavior.
He finds himself mired in the no-man's land of the falsely accused. He fights shadows. As if contagious, he fights mostly alone. Except for a few, his friends and colleagues, having lost their critical abilities and powers of speech, fade away. In Van de Velde's case, even Yale's vaunted law school was seized by a strange indifference to his fate.
Moviegoers in recent weeks caught a whiff of this atmosphere in the film, "Good Night, And Good Luck," about the Red Scare days of the 1950s.
As a young United Press reporter in that dreadful time, I trailed U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy in the early days of his reckless and fruitless hunt for traitors in high and low places. Later, as assistant director of Harvard's press office, I was proud to be part of a university that stood by its own as accusations of communist connections rained down on the faculty. It was a glorious day when attorney Joseph Welch eviscerated McCarthy on national television by saying, "You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"
James Van de Velde knew nothing of my background when he called on me at my northwest corner farmhouse one day nearly three years after the crime. He did know I had written about the Reilly case and was active in exposing justice system calamities around the country.
I recall his need to make it clear that his ordeal did not come anywhere close to the horror of his student's death and the suffering of her family. Yet he plainly was in despair. If law enforcement failed to solve the crime, he would be in limbo forever. He believed every day wasted by a fixation on him was one more day of justice delayed. What does it take, he asked, to bring the law to its senses?
My own dilemma was that I could not possibly find the time to dig into this fascinating affair. I was much too occupied with people in worse situations, awaiting execution or serving life sentences for crimes they did not commit. Yet I had followed the case closely, my file on it was already bulging, and I was appalled at the way Yale had thrown its man overboard.
I was an admirer of Kingman Brewster, the university's best known president in the last of its three centuries. He had led Yale through the stormy years of 1963-77, highlighted by Vietnam War protests. He had gone on to become America's ambassador to Britain and master of University College, Oxford.
Carved in the coping surrounding Brewster's gravestone in a cemetery near the Old Campus, just a few minutes walk from Van de Velde's old corner office in Brewster Hall, are the words, "The presumption of innocence is not just a legal concept. In commonplace terms, it rests on that generosity of spirit which assumes the best, not the worst of a stranger."
I believe in the presumption of innocence. It is part of the glue of a truly civilized society. But if you are a university administrator or a journalist looking at a case of murder, you don't want to be a fool about it. You do the right thing by your fellow man, but you remain alert to signs of guilt even in the absence of evidence.
The remarkable thing about the falsely accused is that the evidence of innocence is often blatant, as with Peter Reilly, as with Van de Velde. The fact that he opened himself to every test and request of investigators, including his unwise willingness to endure, without seeking legal counsel, a four-hour confrontational interrogation, was held against him. His cooperation was interpreted as intellectual arrogance: this Yale brain thinks he can outfox us cops. Yet a failure to cooperate would also have been held against him.
You wonder how the justice system, which gets things right most of the time, can be so insanely wrong some of the time. The DNA revolution of the past 15 years, while identifying the rapists and murderers of many cold cases, has also produced a parade of the exonerated coming out of the nation's prisons.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg of injustice. The vast majority of the many thousands of innocents behind bars have no hope of a DNA miracle because crucial crime-scene material good for testing has been misplaced or destroyed, or never existed.
They can only dream of the kind of good luck that rescued former Warwick, R.I., police detective Scott Hornoff in 2002 after more than six years of incarceration for the murder of a young woman. The conscience-stricken actual killer stepped forward to take the blame. He expressed surprise that state and local police, obsessed with Hornoff, had never questioned him despite his known association with the victim. A subsequent official inquiry said the massive failings in the case were "inexplicable."
Citizens and false-confession fans will do well, starting nine days from now in a Hartford courtroom, to closely follow the next legal steps and new evidence in the longest and most reprehensible of Connecticut's several current cases of wrongful conviction.
In this space on Feb. 21, 1993, the Courant's law-trained Tom Condon made a powerful argument for the actual innocence of Richard Lapointe. He is the middle-aged, brain-damaged Manchester man long behind bars for the killing of his wife's grandmother, Bernice Martin, in 1987.
A similar but even more exhaustive examination of the Suzanne Jovin case and the plight of its lone identified suspect appeared in Northeast on April 1, 2001. Les Gura, then city editor, raised the question, "Are You Wrong About James Van de Velde?"
This classic in investigative journalism, then the longest article ever to appear in the Courant, was the first of two major developments that year that seemed sure to speed Van de Velde's redemption. He thought of it as a turning point.
His big problem had always been his misfortune in living close to the crime scene and being alone in his apartment, watching television, at the time of the murder. If you didn't have the foresight to live elsewhere and place yourself in a mall or on a train when someone else took a life, how can you prove your innocence? Gura, saying that "Van de Velde's mission is all but impossible," leaned as far as he could in his favor without breaking the line between reporting and advocacy.
Then, in late October, came the headline, "Test Shows DNA Not From Jovin's Yale Adviser." A sample from the victim's fingernails, earlier identified as coming from a man, did not match Van de Velde's DNA.
Revealing this information in a written announcement instead of facing press conference questions, the New Haven area state's attorney, Michael Dearington, also said no match had been made of samples obtained from the victim's boyfriend and various police, fire and ambulance personnel at the crime scene. Therefore, investigators would now be requesting DNA samples from the victim's circle of friends.
That day, Van de Velde was in the Middle East on a U.S. government intelligence mission. For newspaper readers, this information itself was telling. The suspect, effectively barred from academia, was again working for Uncle Sam. The rigorous tests and interviews conducted by government investigators obviously had found nothing in his character, behavior or history to deny him the high security clearances necessary for individuals working in counter-terrorism.
With the DNA announcement seen as a second turning point, Van de Velde tried to believe that the Jovin case investigators would now look beyond him - perhaps even apologize. Maybe he could get his reputation back if reporters no longer automatically linked him to the crime.
But there was no apology and no sign of any lessening of the almost religious dedication to the theory of his guilt. Even so, Van de Velde's spirits had been bolstered ever since late 2000 by the knowledge that Yale, under pressure from the Jovin family, had hired two of New York City's retired Finest to conduct an independent investigation. In addition, the university added $100,000 to the $50,000 reward already established.
Andrew Rosenzweig's life in law enforcement had taken him to the heights: chief investigator for the Manhattan District Attorney's office. A New Yorker article by Philip Gourevitch, later expanded to the book "A Cold Case," had told of his astonishing persistence, after nearly three decades, in finding the man responsible for a double homicide.
Patrick Harnett's long career in the NYPD, including the Son of Sam case and organized crime activities, had made him commanding officer of the major crime squad. He intervened in one investigation headed for disaster with a falsely accused suspect.
Andy and Pat were longtime friends and associates. When Pat became the Hartford police chief, Andy worked with him as assistant chief until two months ago. The pair reminds of me of the careful, thoughtful Scotland Yard types I knew during my six years in London. There, even known criminals hauled in for questioning are referred to as people "helping us with our inquiries."
Rosenzweig and Harnett devoted six to eight months to intensive inquiries and analysis (Rosenzweig has continued to be involved, without payment) but came up short. Murder investigations are like that: especially difficult if good leads and evidence are not found in the first days and weeks of the crime.
The conditions of the access Rosenzweig and Harnett were given, with reluctance, to the police investigative file constrains them from talking about its details or their own findings. But it is clear they were deeply troubled by the one-dimensional way the complex case was handled in New Haven. Though detectives, including retired consultants, are loath to pronounce anyone innocent until someone else is shown to be guilty, Rosenzweig was heard to say years ago that "what was done to Van de Velde should not have been done even to a guilty man."
The frustrations in the Jovin case long ago became almost unbearable - for the victim's family and friends, for Van de Velde's family and friends, for the detectives and prosecutors, for the independent investigators, for the leaders at Yale eager to get the great embarrassment behind them.
Thomas and Donna Jovin are all too aware that their daughter's death never got the kind of full-throttle effort seen in the Half and Susanne Zantop case, the husband-and-wife Dartmouth College professors murdered in New Hampshire on Jan. 27, 2001. With FBI assistance and officers of the law in several states cooperating, valid suspects were soon identified. The teenage killers were tracked to Indiana after fleeing from their homes in Vermont. It all happened in three weeks.
Professor David Cameron's frustrations finally spilled over. He has been the Yale faculty member most vocal in urging greater action in the Jovin investigation, and the one most critical of the Yale hierarchy's failure to presume Van de Velde's innocence. A former chairman of the Political Science Department, he had hired the lecturer, held him in high esteem, and, like a few other supporters, had invested untold hours trying to figure how the crime was carried out and by whom.
Two years ago, with the investigation heading into its sixth year, Cameron wrote a powerful appeal published in the Courant (Dec. 21, 2003) and in the Yale Daily News, asking for a whole new direction in the case.
He told of the New Haven police turning down Dr. Henry Lee's offer of forensic help when the crime-scene evidence was still fresh. He told of potential witnesses never interviewed and of a tan or light brown van seen parked where the body was found. The police never sought the assistance of the public in finding the van for more than two years, Cameron said.
"A plastic soda bottle with Jovin's fingerprints on it was found at the scene," he wrote. "The police did not immediately track down where and when she obtained the soda - especially important since one of the last people to see her on Old Campus has said she did not have a soda bottle when he spoke with her."
He remembered Dr. Lee calling the case cold even when it was still warm. He quoted Chief Wearing saying a year earlier, before leaving the department, that the cops "were on the right track" but "If we can't solve the case in the next year, if someone else wants to look at it, that's fine."
The looking at it should be done, Cameron believed, by the cold case unit of the chief state's attorney's office in Rocky Hill. The outfit had been set up in 1998 by Christopher Morano, a resourceful assistant state's attorney in Jack Bailey's office who became the state's top prosecutor after Bailey died. The professor recommended transferring the case to these more experienced sleuths instead of leaving it "in the hands of a single New Haven detective."
And if this is some kind of turf war, as indicated by State's Attorney Dearington's stated unwillingness to seek assistance, Cameron suggested "a multi-level state-local task force that includes the cold case unit" as a way of giving everybody credit if the killer is caught.
Nothing changed. It probably didn't help that the designated suspect, Van de Velde, had been advocating a move to the cold case unit all along. So this year I decided to make a try on my own.
I was impressed by the way the entrance of state experts into the deeply frozen Concetta "Penney" Serra case had made all the difference. Back in 1973, the 21-year-old had been stabbed once in the heart in a stairwell of New Haven's Temple Street Garage.
Three men became early prime suspects including a distant cousin of the police chief. The victim's father demanded the state take over the case after one of the falsely accused, Anthony Golino, on the eve of his trial in 1987, was found to have the wrong blood type. Golino's life was so damaged by being cast as a murderer that Dr. Lee calls him "one of the victims of this crime."
The big break came when advances in technology enabled forensic scientists to match a thumbprint found on a tissue box in the victim's car to Edward Grant, arrested earlier on domestic violence charges. With DNA on a handkerchief found near Penney Serra's car keys also matched to Grant, he was convicted in 2002, 29 years after the crime.
Chris Morano is refreshing as an innovative chief state's attorney with an open-door policy. He has encouraged Connecticut lawmen to adopt the latest knowledge about eyewitness identification procedures. He sees the value of full electronic recording of suspect interrogations. When we discussed such matters for several hours not long ago, I slipped in a question: Would he and his cold case experts be willing to take on the Jovin murder?
Yes, of course, but he has to be asked. The state's attorneys operate their own fiefdoms; you can't tell them what to do. He smiled at the suggestion that his job was akin to herding a bunch of cats.
On Oct. 8 I wrote to Dearington and New Haven Police Chief Francisco Ortiz to ask about getting the case transferred. My hopes rested on Ortiz. He was fairly new to the top job and not burdened by a personal history in the Jovin investigation.
I noted the approaching seventh anniversary and spoke of my concerns. I said the fact that one of my three daughters is a faculty member at Yale-New Haven Hospital, teaching nursing in a city sometimes dangerous, made me especially mindful that an unsolved killing means a killer, if not dead or in prison, is still on the loose.
Echoing Cameron, I suggested calling in the cold case unit and gave my reasons. I said, in effect: Please tell me if genuine progress now underway makes this a dumb idea; if so, I will go away.
I was "asking only for excellence in law enforcement." I quoted Arthur Miller's statement at the 1995 Hartford forum on the Richard Lapointe case: "I would like to protect the police, even from themselves. We need them. We need their principled upholding of the law."
Neither letter was answered. Consequently, weeks later, I began making inquiries in New Haven. I finally reached the key players.
Prosecutor Clark was hostile, asking what part of his "unequivocal" refusal to talk about the case did I not understand. State's Attorney Dearington was courteous, but equally close-mouthed. Like Clark, he did not take me up on an offer to publish whatever case specifics might attract leads to potential witnesses from readers.
Dearington's guard dropped just once. It was when I observed that the Jovin slaying was still unsolved "after seven years" and said again, "seven years!" In my mind, this is a long time. Maybe not in his. He asked me, rhetorically, "How long did it take to solve the Penney Serra case?"
Chief Ortiz was different. We talked at length late one afternoon. I thought him charming, wonderfully professional and in no way defensive as I deplored the failings of the investigation and suggested a fresh approach at the chief state's attorney's level.
He said he is not necessarily opposed to the idea. He indicated he would not stand in the way if Dearington were willing to let command of the case go out of New Haven. But he depicted the investigation as anything but stalled. "I like the direction it's going at this time." He said my article could be valuable in drawing attention to the case. But as for disclosing selected details for publication - even for the purpose of soliciting public input ... In other words, I got nothing.
And I have no idea where this is going. The person in the world with the least expectation of change is James Van de Velde. He made his own effort at advancing the investigation on Feb. 1, 2004, in an article for Northeast that offered a laundry list of forensic possibilities. He called for imaginative maximum use of new crime-fighting technology and a fresh approach on all fronts. He might as well have been talking to the wind.
Van de Velde has gone through the wringer and has come out a winner, at least in terms of being able to deal with adversity and keep on living an honorable life. He is married, is the father of a sparkling boy and lives in the Maryland outskirts of Washington, D.C.
His counter-terrorism work for a variety of intelligence agencies has put him in situations where his experience as a murder suspect came in handy. He has interviewed alleged terrorists at Guantanamo. He was deeply involved in the government's efforts to solve the country's greatest unsolved crime: the anthrax attacks in 2001 that killed five people, sickened 17, closed government and private offices, and cost a billion dollars or more in security changes.
That massive investigation was thrown wildly off course by the unwarranted focus on a single suspect, research scientist Steven J. Hatfill. He was never arrested but fired from his biodefense work under government contract after being labeled a "person of interest" by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft.
As in "Les Miserables," it is no small thing to keep your cool if you are Jean Valjean relentlessly being pursued by cold-eyed Inspector Javert. Van de Velde's worst moment in his post-Yale life came when prosecutor Clark turned up in Washington with two New Haven detectives two summers ago.
With Clark silent, I rely on Van de Velde's account: "They persuaded the Naval Criminal Intelligence Service and the Defense Security Service of the Pentagon to pull me from my post, interrogate me, demand that I take yet another polygraph test (despite my having passed a test two weeks earlier for a liaison post I was chosen for by the CIA), accuse me of the crime and terminate my military assignment. As a result of Clark and the New Haven police, I was kicked out of my position as Senior Intelligence Analyst for al-Qaeda and anthrax at the Defense Intelligence Agency."
The ripple effect of this episode led to the loss of his job at the DIA and a legal struggle to restore his Top Secret clearance - a fight he won before a Pentagon administrative judge and the Navy Appeals Panel 20 months later. He resumed his counter-intelligence work with his Top Secret status restored, this time for the State Department.
I sometimes despair about understanding how the guardians of our safety - who usually do good service, who rarely knowingly intend to railroad an innocent man - can rationalize behavior that gets in the way of true justice. How will they live with themselves if still more years go by and a terrible death slips out of mind, out of sight?
The English writer G.K. Chesterton said long ago that "The horrible thing about all legal officials, even the best, about all judges, magistrates, detectives and policemen, is not that they are wicked (some of them are good), not that they are stupid (some of them are quite intelligent), it is simply that they have got used to it."
Copyright 2005, Hartford Courant