A Murder At Yale

In a case of rushed judgement, an innocent man is freed and a murder goes unsolved.

Written by Christian Nolan and Originally Published in The Connecticut Law Tribune on June 7, 2013

James Van de Velde v. Melvin Wearing, et al.: A former Yale University employee who was implicated by police, but never charged, in the highly publicized murder investigation of student Suzanne Jovin in 1998 has settled lawsuits with the university and the City of New Haven.

James Van de Velde, a former lecturer at Yale, will receive $200,000 from New Haven. Yale's settlement is confidential and no monetary figure was released last week.

Van de Velde claimed that being named a suspect by police for a time ruined his career, health and reputation. He filed a lawsuit against New Haven police officials in 2001. He sued Yale in 2003. He claimed both violated his federal constitutional rights by publicly naming him a suspect in such a high-profile murder investigation.

"His career was dealt an enormous blow. He lost his teaching position at Yale," his lawyer, David T. Grudberg, of Carmody & Torrance, told the Law Tribune. "He went from teaching at one of the most prestigious universities in the world to a pariah in academia.

"He couldn't get an interview at even the most obscure academic institutions in the country," continued Grudberg. "He was turned down for dozens, if not hundreds, of jobs. The rebuilding of his career has been a slow, painstaking process."

The killing of Jovin, a 21-year-old political science major from Germany, remains unsolved. She was stabbed 17 times in the back and neck on December 4, 1998, and left slumped on the curb of a residential street, three-fifths of a mile from her home.

Roughly five days later, police and Yale officials told news outlets that a "male Yale teacher" was the "lead suspect" in the murder. The media soon named Van de Velde as the suspect, and the ensuing wave of publicity produced intense public scrutiny of his background and personal life.

Van de Velde was Jovin's thesis advisor.

A month later, then-Yale Dean Richard Brodhead, a named defendant in the eventual civil suit, told Van de Velde that his spring courses would be canceled, and that he would not be permitted to serve as a senior essay advisor or directed reading tutor during the spring semester.

The next day, Thomas Conroy, Yale's public affairs director, issued a public statement in response to media inquiries about the cancellation of Van de Velde's classes. Conroy said that while Yale presumed Van de Velde to be innocent, he was in a "pool of suspects" being considered in the Jovin murder investigation, and police would be questioning people on campus about him in the coming weeks.

Following Conroy's announcement, police officials confirmed that Van de Velde was a suspect. This triggered another wave of publicity.

"I wasn't a boyfriend, ex-husband, a work colleague. I had no argument with her," Van de Velde wrote in 2009 in response to questions emailed by The Associated Press. "My DNA was not at the scene. I was not seen at the scene."

Male DNA recovered from Jovin's fingernails did not match that of Van de Velde's. No other suspects were ever publicly identified. "This case was about vindication as much as it was financial damages," said Grudberg.

As the lawsuit languished for more than a decade, that vindication was slow in coming. Last week, however, New Haven State's Attorney Michael Dearington, speaking publicly about Van de Velde for the first time, told The New York Times: "I guess I can say at this point in time he's not considered a suspect."

"That sort of public statement is exactly the vindication we were looking for," said Grudberg.

Robert Rhodes, a lawyer representing the city of New Haven in the litigation, said settlement discussions took place over the past year and the settlement was reached following mediation sessions involving all three parties and conducted by U.S. Magistrate William Garfinkel. "The settlement is not an admission of liability and was done for the primary purpose of avoiding the tremendous costs associated with litigating this matter through trial and any appeal," said Rhodes.

Yale officials made a similar statement.

"Yale will continue to cooperate in every way it can with the state's ongoing investigation of Ms. Jovin's tragic death, and nothing in the settlement of Mr. Van de Velde's civil lawsuit precludes further criminal investigation by the authorities," said Karen Peart, a Yale spokeswoman. "But continuing the civil litigation for several more years would serve little purpose at this point, and it would demand further time, energy, and cost with no corresponding benefit. For this reason, Yale has chosen to reach a simple, negotiated settlement to resolve the litigation."

Van de Velde, a cum laude graduate of Yale, said he intends to move forward in his career as a consultant to the U.S. intelligence community and a lecturer in security studies at Johns Hopkins University. He also said he plans to return to the U.S. Naval Intelligence Reserves. Finally, he said he plans to serve as a spokesman for those "wrongly accused and publicly labeled."

"I was destroyed," Van de Velde wrote to the AP in 2009. "Naming someone Jovin knew served the interests of Yale, which wanted to dissuade the public that [she] was perhaps killed by a random act of violence," which would have raised questions about security on campus and neighboring areas, he said.

Grudberg wonders if the real killer might have been caught had police not focused so much on his client.

"The crime has never been solved and one can only wonder what would have happened if police were not fixated on an innocent man for so long," said Grudberg. "It's another lesson in the dangers of a rushed judgment by law enforcement."

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