Judge dismisses wrongful death suit against Harvard filed by mother of murder victim

A Middlesex Superior Court judge has dismissed the wrongful death lawsuit filed against Harvard University by the mother of a Cambridge man murdered inside a dormitory by non-students who used a Harvard student’s identification card to get inside a college dorm.

In a nine-page ruling, Judge Mitchell Kaplan sided with Harvard, who had argued in court papers it was not legally 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.

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


According to testimony at Copney’s first-degree murder trial and the judge’s ruling, Copney and the other New York men were in Smith’s dorm room before the murder, 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.

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 non-student, 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 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 attorney, declined comment today.

Harvard spokesman Kevin Galvin said in an email that the school would “let the decison speak for itself.’’

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

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