The innocent suspect
The dangerous power of a story ruins a man’s reputation
When my husband’s cousin Jim Van de Velde came to visit in 2000, he played with our 6-year-old, talked with our older son about books and movies, and updated us on his mother and sisters. We enjoyed, as we had always enjoyed, his quiet, steady kindness; but we also knew that he was despondent and that the family was in agony. For the past couple of years Jim had been in limbo: the only suspect ever named in the murder of Suzanne Jovin, a Yale undergraduate stabbed to death in December 1998. Jim, a Yale lecturer who had been Jovin’s thesis adviser, was questioned after the murder. His name and photo started to appear in newspapers within a week. He had lost his career and his reputation. There was never any evidence connecting him with the crime, but because the murder went unsolved, there was no way for him to break free of the story.
It has taken a long time, but now he has finally been vindicated. On June 3, it was announced that Yale and the New Haven police have agreed to pay settlements in the civil rights lawsuits Jim filed against them; and for the first time the New Haven district attorney has publicly confirmed that “he’s not considered a suspect.”
Jim’s story all along was that he was innocent. He said it to the police; he said it to Yale; he said it to all the reporters. Jim’s story was true, and because I knew him I had no trouble believing it was true. But what if I hadn’t known him? Might I have believed the other story, the lurid, sensational string of true-crime clichés implicit in most of what was written about him?
Going back now and looking at the press coverage, I can see Jim getting smeared by a combination of anonymous comments and innuendo, as the supposed truth about him grew ever more sinister and irrefutable. First there were the headlines in the New Haven Register: “She knew her killer.” “Cops question lecturer about coed murder.” “Prime suspect.” Then Yale abruptly canceled Jim’s classes. A university spokesman stated that according to New Haven police he was “in a pool of suspects,” and that although he was presumed innocent, his presence in the classroom would be a “distraction.” The story, as we would say today, went viral. The linked names and photos of Jim and Suzanne Jovin appeared over and over in newspapers, magazines, and television: The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Time, Vanity Fair, “NBC Nightly News,’’ ABC’s “Good Morning America,’’ “20/20.’’
By now, it was clear that everything true about him could be transmogrified into its sinister opposite. Whatever the facts were, they existed only to mislead. He was a blond former choirboy; therefore he must have been concealing some dark secret. He had served in the military; therefore he must have learned intelligence tricks that helped him cover up his tracks. He honored Suzanne Jovin by bringing flowers to class after her murder; therefore he must have been romantically obsessed by her.
The story had a power that was separate from, and greater than, the facts. It fell into well-worn tabloid grooves that had more to do with titillation than with accuracy. Oh, it’s a straight-arrow-twisted-by-his-own-dark-desires story. It’s a dark-underside-of-Ivy-League-privilege story. “He was such a nice boy,” the neighbors say; we’ve seen it a million times. When I told people that I knew Jim, knew he wasn’t capable of this crime, and besides there was no evidence, they looked at me with condescending pity. “I know people at Yale, and everyone knows he did it,” one (former) friend told me. Are we so jaded that we can no longer imagine a scenario in which the nice boy really is a nice boy?
We need to beware of the power of stories: how we tell them and how we read them. I watched Jim get caught up in the jaws of a story that almost ate him alive. Since then, he has quietly built up a new career, working in the field of counterterrorism out of the public spotlight. He’s OK, but what happened to him isn’t. It caused enormous pain and harm. If we’re going to insist on reading his life as a Hitchcock movie, let’s at least get the right movie. It wasn’t “Psycho.” It was “The Wrong Man.”
Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her latest book is “The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story.’’