Harvard slaying lawsuit rejected

A judge has dismissed the wrongful death lawsuit filed against Harvard University by the mother of a Cambridge man slain in a dormitory by nonstudents who used a Harvard student’s identification card to get into the building.

In a nine-page ruling, ­Middlesex Superior Court Judge Mitchell Kaplan sided with Harvard, which contended it was not liable for the actions of three New York men who lured Justin D. ­Cosby into Kirkland Hall and shot him to death in 2009 when their planned drug robbery turned violent.

Cosby’s mother, Denise, sued the school arguing that the mastermind of the botched drug robbery, Jabrai Jordan ­Copney, was allowed by ­Harvard officials to live with Britanny Smith, then a Harvard senior, in her Lowell House dormitory, even though the couple was violating school rules.


According to testimony at Copney’s murder trial and in the judge’s ruling, Copney and the other New York men were in Smith’s dorm room before the killing, fine-tuning their plans and loading the handgun eventually used to kill Cosby. Smith then stashed the murder weapon in a classmate’s bedroom after the shooting.

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Kaplan summarized the legal question raised by Denise Cosby’s lawsuit by writing, “Did Harvard [or the individual ­defendants] owe Cosby a duty of care to protect him from the criminal acts of a non­student third parties?”

The judge concluded that under Massachusetts law, ­Harvard and Lowell House officials Diana L. Eck, Dorothy Austin, and Ryan M. Spoering could not be sued civilly for ­Justin Cosby’s murder.

“There is nothing inherent in knowingly or negligently allow­ing a Harvard student to permit her boyfriend to stay in her room such that a reasonable person would expect visitors to the University would be protected from the foreseeable criminally deadly conduct of the room guest,’’ Kaplan wrote.

Kaplan added: “In fact, there is nothing inherent in Copney’s allegedly living in Lowell House that proximately caused Cosby’s murder. . . . It certainly cannot be said that Harvard was negligent in failing to take some step that would prevent any student from allowing a visitor to use his or her ID card, if she was willing to violate school policy.’’


Isaac Peres, Denise Cosby’s lawyer, declined to comment Monday. Kevin Galvin, a ­Harvard spokesman, said in ­e-mail the school would “let the decision speak for itself.’’

Copney is serving a sentence of life in prison without parole following his conviction of first- degree murder after his former friends struck deals with prosecutors and provided evidence against him. Smith, who was about to graduate from ­Harvard at the time of the killing, pleaded guilty to accessory charges and was sentenced to three years in state prison.

John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement