When John Velleca heard the news, he thought: Norman Boone didn’t have to die. He could have been in jail instead of out on Dickerman Street where someone gunned him down.
Velleca had tried to put Boone in jail back in 2011. At the time Velleca was New Haven’s assistant police chief. He helped oversee an investigation that concluded that Boone, then 21 years old, had killed a 17-year-old named Vashun Lewis. Police arrested Boone and charged him with the murder.
But in a dramatic twist of events, the region’s top prosecutor came to arraignment court to ask the judge to drop the charges, because the prosecutor’s office had told the police not to make the arrest in the first place. The prosecutor said the cops didn’t present sufficient evidence. Velleca said they did and argued that they would have prosecuted the case if the victim had been white. (Read about the details of the dispute here.)
That dispute returned to Velleca’s mind the Saturday before last, when someone on Dickerman Street shot Boone to death. Boone was 27 years old. He had been in and out of trouble since his teens. He ran with Dixwell’s Tribe gang, then went straight through the city’s street outreach program, then allegedly fell back into the life and was sentenced to jail time on weapons and drug charges.
His shooting death remains under investigation by the police.
Velleca — who has since retired from the force and serves as sergeant at arms for the Connecticut State Senate — discussed how Boone’s story fits into broader concerns about how the criminal justice system treats the deaths of people of different races. He argues that at least in the recent past the bar has been raised too high for bringing cases against killers of black rather than white victims; others in the community have pushed for the state to be more cautious before deciding it has enough evidence against all suspects.
The interview took place on WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven” program, on which Velleca serves as a regular policing expert. Excerpts of the conversation follow.
WNHH: So what what went through your head when you saw two Saturdays ago that Norman Boone was killed?
Velleca: I shook my head. Vashun Lewis is dead; nothing’s going to bring him back, OK?
Norman Boone — people come back. Nobody goes to prison forever, not a lot of people anyway. So, why is it that we don’t prosecute Norman Boone, we give the family of Vashun Lewis closure, he serves time in jail for the punitive aspect of his offense, and maybe during that time we give him the time to rehabilitate himself and maybe he does come back and be a street outreach worker and gets to these kids and prevents more violence.
So you’re saying you wish you could have locked up Norman Boone for what you believe was a murder because it could have saved his life?
I think that if we had put Norman Boone in jail he would have at least had a chance to change his life instead of ending up how he ended up. That’s my personal opinion, I believe that wholeheartedly.
There has always been a bit of a double standard. In other words, the level of evidentiary value placed on these cases when it involves inner-city kids in the life is astronomical.
WNNH: So what you’re saying is the state, if a white person gets killed, the state will take one eyewitness piece of evidence and go with prosecution …
That’s my personal opinion, yeah. From my experience.
Whereas if it is a black kid from the life they will just say, “You gotta do better, you need to meet a higher standard of evidence.”
I’m not going say [that is the case] now, because we have a new state attorney. I think at that point [when Boone was arrested], they were much more concerned about winning cases instead of prosecuting people they believed were guilty.
Let’s fill people in on the part you’re not mentioning. After Norman Boone finished his street outreach program, he got back in the life. There was a murder. You guys had an eyewitness to the murder who said [the killer] was Norman Boone.
You arrested him.
Then the state’s attorney — I happened to be in court that day — actually made an unusual appearance himself in court, rather than the people he usually has prosecuting. He said to the judge, “We can’t prosecute this case; the evidence isn’t strong enough. We told the police not bring the case.” And they let [Boone] go.
Right. I made the decision to bypass the state’s attorney [and make the arrest]. He was found as he was trying to flee the state and with a gun on him.
I remember you were upset John, because at time you were in charge of the detective bureau. But what’s wrong with the state’s attorney saying, “We want to push you guys to have better evidence”? Rather than going with [what was] not enough evidence in their view? Maybe they should have the same standard in the cases with white victims [as well] … and say, “We wanna set the bar higher and push you guys in the police department to do a better job investigating.”
But that’s not what they were doing. That’s the problem. We got to a point where it was about wins and losses, not about justice and not about prosecuting people they believe committed a crime.
But we have a system of law. So when [prosecutors] say, “we want wins,” [maybe that just] means, “we want real evidence. We don’t wanna be locking up people that we think did it [if] we can’t prove it. Some people do go to jail for crimes they didn’t commit.
And I absolutely agree with that. I do. We had an eyewitness testimony. We also had some physical evidence.
We had some supportive evidence of the eyewitness testimony, which put things into perspective for me. It wasn’t a circumstantially based case, in other words. It was a strong case, in our opinion.
So they felt if they brought this eyewitness to the stand [he might not be convincing], because usually the people who are the eyewitnesses are compromised themselves.
That was the issue.
Often [eyewitnesses] are people in life too who are looking to break for themselves. I also know from my own experience I am a terrible eyewitness; I don’t remember what I see well. But are you saying that you had enough [evidence] there but they didn’t care enough because of who the victim was?
I personally believe that there was a double standard imposed at that time. I really in my heart feel that way. I think that if these kids in the inner city, [whose parents] can’t pick the phone up and call a prominent politician to put pressure on the state attorney’s office — I believe that the bar is lower [to prosecute their killers].
The bar is lower than when a white person gets killed?
What other murder have we investigated like Suzanne Jovin [the Yale student found dead in East Rock in 1998)?
Right. That’s without question. Or even Mitch Dubey, who was a white [bike mechanic] who got killed in Newhallville [in 2011]. All the stops were pulled. So what’s wrong with raising the bar for everyone so we also don’t get the wrong guy arrested?
Listen, I’m OK with raising the bar as high as you need it. Believe me when I tell you, I think that if someone goes to jail, they should obviously be guilty. The last thing a detective wants is someone to go to jail who’s innocent. But, in this case [involving Boone’s arrest], after doing the job for so many years, I truly in my heart believed he was the person responsible for killing Vashun Lewis Jr.
Mitch Dubey was a white guy who was killed; they pulled out all the stops. But even there, they arrested someone on eyewitness evidence and the state prosecutor [went with the case]. But the [arrestee] got off and then he [got arrested for allegedly committing] another shooting.
Much weaker case [than Boone].
That’s interesting. So Norman Boone, you felt you had the stronger case, and they didn’t prosecute. So you had the black victim there, [you felt] they didn’t care as much. They said, “we aren’t just gonna make an arrest.” They are saying you have to do better. White victim, Mitch Dubey, they had a guy they all believed did it. And they had much less evidence to go on it, and they lost the case. And then the guy went out and shot somebody else.
Right. Listen I know both of these cases very well. There was an extreme amount of pressure [to solve the] Mitchell Dubey case, and it was from the inception of that job, it was not as cut and dry as the inception of [the Boone arrest].
With Mitch Dubey, the question was not whether the guy was there with the gun, but whether he or the other guy pulled the trigger. So the eyewitness becomes someone who might have been protecting himself by saying the other guy pulled the trigger.
The issue with the eyewitness [in the Boone case] was, first, the eyewitness was a matter of two feet from Norman Boone when he does the shoot. Two feet. He’s with the victim. Norman Boone and the eyewitness. There’s only 3 people present. We had gotten information that there was another gun on the scene. Everything was fine until we asked [the eyewitness] to produce the gun. It took a few different times; he finally produces the gun and in return the state’s attorney says he isn’t credible because he wouldn’t produce the gun. Of course he’s going to hide the gun. But let’s be honest, what kind of world are we living in? If he was going to turn the gun over he would have done it that day he was obviously scared. But our point was that it lends to the credibility that we have gotten to this person, He trusts us, right, and now he is being truthful. He went out when he didn’t need to, brought the gun back to us.
Why did he do it?
Because we asked him to.
What was in it for him?
Nothing. Not a thing. Not a thing.
Click on or download the above audio file to hear the full interview with John Velleca on WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven,” including advice Velleca has for new New Haven Police Chief Anthony Campbell.
Samuel Hadelman contributed to this article.