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The mother of a 21-year-old man who was fatally shot in a Harvard dormitory three years ago has filed a lawsuit against the University and three Lowell House officials claiming that Harvard’s negligence in allowing a drug dealer to live in Lowell for months led to the wrongful death of her son.
Jabrai Jordan Copney, who was convicted of the murder of Cambridge resident Justin D. C. D. Cosby in criminal court last year, lived with his girlfriend, a Harvard student, for most of the school year before the murder in May 2009.
B. Denise Cosby, the murder victim’s mother, filed a wrongful death suit last Friday against the University, Lowell Co-House Masters Dorothy A. Austin and Diana L. Eck, and chemistry and chemical biology lecturer Ryan M. Spoering, who was resident dean of Lowell at the time of the shooting.
The complaint alleges that the three Lowell House officials either “knowingly allowed Copney, a nonstudent, to live in the Lowell House for an extended period of time, in contravention of Harvard’s rules, and allowed him to have unfettered access to the House and the rest of Harvard’s campus,” or “negligently failed to detect Copney’s continuing, unauthorized presence.”
As a result of the University’s negligence, the complaint says, Copney was able to run “a criminal enterprise”—a pattern of holding Ivy League drug dealers at gunpoint for their marijuana.
Copney, who is originally from New York, had been living for most of the academic year with his girlfriend Brittany J. Smith, then a Harvard senior, in her Lowell House room when the Kirkland shooting occurred.
According to testimony in Copney’s murder trial last year, Copney and two other men, who had come from New York to conduct a drug robbery with him, invited Cosby, who sold marijuana to Harvard students, into the basement of Kirkland’s J-entryway with the intent of stealing marijuana from him at gunpoint. When Cosby refused to hand over the drugs, Copney shot him, prosecutors and witnesses said.
Earlier in the year, Copney and one of the two associates held up two other drug dealers—Yale students whom they had met at a party in Kirkland House during Harvard-Yale weekend—in an incident that was termed a “blueprint” for Cosby’s killing.
Copney was sentenced to life in prison for Cosby’s murder in April 2011.
In September, Smith pleaded guilty to five charges connected to her role in hiding the murder weapon after the fact and protecting Copney. She was sentenced to three years in prison.
University spokesperson Kevin Galvin wrote in an emailed statement that the University will fight the suit.
“We recognize that the Cosby family has suffered a heart-rending loss, but there is no basis in law or fact to hold the University accountable for Justin Cosby’s death,” Galvin wrote. “He entered Harvard property that day for the sole purpose of selling a large quantity of marijuana to people unaffiliated with the University, and one of them shot him. We will vigorously defend against this lawsuit.”
In a phone interview with The Crimson, Denise Cosby’s lawyers Isaac H. Peres and Dennis A. Benzan said that Denise Cosby had waited for the criminal trials to conclude and for more information about the murder to be revealed before suing the University.
“She felt that the time was right,” Benzan said. [The criminal proceedings have] taken a tremendous toll on her, but she’s been able to regroup over the last few months and move forward with this suit.”
Denise Cosby said in September that her first reaction to Smith’s sentencing was “thank you, Jesus, this is all over with.”
The Harvard College Handbook for Students, which is cited in the complaint, states that “students who wish to have guests who are not Harvard students for more than two nights must first also obtain permission of the House Master or Dean of Freshmen. The hosts of repeated overnight guests who are not Harvard students must make their guests’ presence known to the Building Manager and security personnel due to safety considerations.”
Peres said that this language makes Harvard liable for Copney’s unpenalized presence in Lowell House.
“The rules recognize that that’s a dangerous thing, to have a non-Harvard student living there,” Peres said. “Someone looked the other way and they knew about it, or they were just lax and allowed this situation to occur.”
According to documents filed in October 2010 in Smith’s case, Lowell tutors did approach her about the smell of marijuana from her room. After that, Copney, who smoked $100 worth of the drug a day, according to court documents, moved his daily drug use to Kirkland.
Peres said that Denise Cosby chose to sue Eck, Austin, and Spoering because they were “the ones that are closest to the situation.”
“They’re supposed to enforce the rules, and obviously someone did not enforce the rules as to non-Harvard students living in the dorm,” Peres said.
Benzan added, “There is clearly a drug culture on campus.... Harvard University should take more responsibility.”
The University has twenty business days to respond to the complaint, at which point the discovery phase of the suit could begin.
If a jury in a potential trial delivers a verdict in Denise Cosby’s favor, the University and the three Lowell officials could face monetary damages.
Eck declined to comment, and Austin and Spoering did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
—Staff writer Rebecca D. Robbins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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