THE PLANK SEPTEMBER 18, 2009
The wall-to-wall coverage this week focusing on the murder of Yale student Annie Le goes to show just how mad these Ivy League murders drive us. They create instant victims and villains, but almost never a mix of the two. However, this week, it was hard not to remember the case if James Van de Velde, the Yale lecturer accused of killing Yale senior Suzanne Jovin in December 1998. Once called “Richard Jewell with a Ph.D,” Van de Velde’s life was turned upside down that winter after being publicly named a suspect--the only to be named--despite a lack of any hard evidence. He had been the academic advisor to Jovin, and she had met with him on the day of her death. While he was never formally charged, the university responded by cancelling his classes that spring and not renewing his contract the following year--his reputation, academic career, and personal life were quickly ruined. In a 1999 New York Times Magazine piece, James Bennet chronicled his life as a suspect:
But layer by layer, his life has been whittled down. He has no job now and few prospects, just a growing pile of rejections. His casual friends and colleagues have dropped away, leaving a small, hard core of loyalists. He cannot, of course, date. His savings are dwindling, and his legal bills are rising. His upbringing, his career and his social life have been publicly fly-specked by journalists searching backward, through the darkest of lenses, for signs of a murderer in the making.
What’s become of him over the last decade? He has spent much time vehemently defending his innocence, publishing op-eds calling for a renewed seriousness in the investigations, and writing letters (as recently as last year) urging authorities to test the DNA evidence found at the crime scene (a palm print on a Fresca can, skin underneath the victims fingernails), which have either not been tested, or have not matched his DNA. Since 2007, the case has been in the hands of four retired state detectives and is ongoing. One of the detectives reportedly said, “What was done to Van de Velde should not have been done even to a guilty man.” The team has recently claimed that “no person is a suspect in the crime, and everyone is a suspect,” and they are reportedly not in contact with Van de Velde. With the 2008 release of a composite of a man seen fleeing the area after the crime, it seems Van de Velde is finally out from under the thumb of (at least official) suspicion.
He’s also taken to the courts to seek compensation for the injustice he feels he suffered. In January of 2001, he sued Quinnipiac University for dismissing him from a graduate program he had been enrolled in at the time, and dropped the suit in 2004 in exchange for $80,000. In December of 2001, he sued the New Haven Police Department in federal court in Connecticut for violating his civil rights by naming him publicly--he added Yale as a defendant in 2003. In 2004 a judge dismissed the federal claims but reinstated the state claims in 2007.
Legal battles aside, Van de Velde, who has declined to talk to various new sources since the Le murder (save for a few questions from the AP), has recovered professionally despite a struggle to find work in the years immediately following the murder. Now with a wife and son, he is a counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation analyst at the prestigious D.C. consulting firm, Booz Allen Hamilton, and worked for several years in counterterrorism at the State Department and the Defense Intelligence Agency. In 1999 Van de Velde told Bennet, “I want the life I had completely back. And I see no reason why I shouldn’t be able to get it.” It may not be completely the life he had, and suspicions of his innocence remain, but from the outside looking in, it seems like the life of an innocent man.