Newsreal: Free the Boulder Two!

Everybody thinks John or Patsy Ramsey, or both, killed their daughter JonBenet. But 10 months after the murder, the police have nothing solid -- except smears that they feed to the press.

Published October 17, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

i always wanted to be unique, and now I've made it: I'm the only person in America -- apart from the two accused -- who thinks that John and Patsy Ramsey are being publicly destroyed for a crime they didn't commit.

Perhaps I'm merely ignorant. I don't have access to the police files on the case -- just the copious "evidence" that's been leaked steadily to the National Enquirer, the Globe, Newsweek and Vanity Fair by the Boulder, Colo., cops. Problem is, what they've got, more than 10 months after the slaying, isn't anywhere close to an indictment. So they've done the next best thing: smeared the Ramseys up and down, with the aid of the press, hoping to make their prime suspects crack. It's the same tactic the FBI used against Richard Jewell in the Atlanta Olympics bombing case. And, as with the Jewell case, the cops may be flat out wrong.

Let's look at the case, which rests entirely on circumstantial, often unspeakably tendentious, evidence that the cops have fed to the press.

1. The Ramseys did not act normally after JonBenet's death.
As Vanity Fair recounts it, as John Ramsey laid his daughter's body on the floor after discovering it in his cellar, "he started to moan, while peering around to see who was looking at him." Hmmm. Suspicious. Left unspecified is what constitutes normal behavior when your child has been murdered in your home. Vanity Fair goes to great lengths to portray John Ramsey as a man lacking the ability to express emotions, and it might very well be normal for such a man to moan and look around for help at such a moment.

It might also be normal for this man, in particular, to feel overwhelmed by sick destiny, inasmuch as his wife had been stricken with breast cancer and he had already lived through the death of another child. -- reported by the Globe with the following headline: "DADDY ABUSED JONBENET'S SISTER!: Ramsey girl was killed before she could tell." Actually, the sister died in a car crash, and there is so far no proof that Ramsey "abused" her, however that word is meant.

2. John Ramsey found the body without even looking for it.
According to Vanity Fair, John Ramsey, after being told by a Boulder cop to search for the missing JonBenet, "bolted from the kitchen and headed down to the basement. Fleet White [Ramsey's former friend] told us that Ramsey went directly to a small broken window on the north side of the house and paused ... John said, 'Yeah, I broke it last summer.'" From this, an investigator talking to Vanity Fair concludes, Ramsey "wanted Fleet to see the window to set up an intruder theory, but no one but a small child or a midget could have crawled through that space. While Fleet is looking at the window, John disappears down the hall directly to the little room where the body is."

Of course, there are other uses for a broken window other than crawling through it. Like reaching through the hole in the glass from the outside and opening the lock. But why did Ramsey go directly to that little room? Perhaps because he had a dreadful intuition of what he might find there, or because of some small sign that only a man who lived in that house would notice.

3. The Ramseys refused to cooperate with police, hired attorneys and went on CNN to cry their innocence.

This is the Ramseys-protest-too-much theory. But since when was calling an attorney evidence of guilt? Any competent attorney would have advised the Ramseys that they would be the immediate prime suspects, because most child murders are committed by parents or relatives. Being told to be wary of the police would seem to be quite sound legal advice. Going on CNN was bizarre, not to mention a ghastly PR failure. But, despite the National Enquirer "experts'" supposed detection of falsehoods in John Ramsey's voice, it proves absolutely nothing. Vanity Fair found it shockingly significant that Ramsey told CNN, "I don't know if it was an attack on me, on my company ..." Well, Ramsey is in the software business, which may politely be described as cutthroat. He may suffer from the egocentric delusions that are fairly common among self-made men. But that is hardly proof he murdered his daughter.

4. Crucial forensic evidence was apparently removed or erased from the crime scene, or was compromised when Ramsey picked up JonBenet's body.

Cops have been known to bungle evidence -- anyone remember the O.J. trial? -- in the most extraordinary ways. And if it was the killer's work, how does that point ineluctably to John Ramsey? Is he the only one in the state of Colorado who might have read any number of detective novels and police procedurals that provide advanced courses in forensic cover-ups? As for picking up his daughter's body, with no police officer around to tell him not to, maybe it was the action of a shocked, grieving father. Unless of course, as Vanity Fair insists, the man has no heart.

5. The handwriting on the note.

The only suspect, according to a handwriting analyst, whose writing was in any way similar to the ransom note was Patsy Ramsey. And the note contained a phrase she had been heard to speak: "Use that good, Southern common sense of yours." First of all, the comparisons are inconclusive, at best. Second of all, handwriting analysis (as Seymour Hersh will mournfully tell you about the fake Marilyn Monroe-JFK letters) is often about as accurate as farting at the moon. But if it was Patsy Ramsey spending hours at the crime scene after the murder painfully composing the "ransom note," then what was John Ramsey doing? Covering for his wife, as presumably he has been ever since?
Or is it the other way around? Why one would cover for the other, however, is not clear. These are not poor people without means of their own. And if anything, obtaining sole possession of their joint means might be ample reason to turn the other over to the cops.

6. Sick parents exploited, abused and psychologically destroyed their too-beautiful child.

Even before she was murdered, goes the media wisdom,
JonBenet was figuratively dead, her childhood sacrificed on the altar of her parents' deviant desires. Specifically, the tabloids have suggested that JonBenet was murdered either by accident, in the course of a sex game gone awry or in a panic, brought on by fear she would expose her parent-abuser. The current issue of Globe says that Patsy killed JonBenet in a rage over her bed-wetting (there were urine stains on the
underwear of the victim) and that John is merely covering up for her.

In the classic study of such killings, Philip J. Resnick's "Child Murder by Parents: A Psychiatric Review of Filicide," such "accidents" accounted for 12 percent of Resnick's 131 cases. But most of them happened when the killer was in a sudden rage over something the child did (or was seen as having done). JonBenet was garroted -- the autopsy report notes the "deep furrow" on her neck -- which does not suggest a spontaneous assault. While it doesn't rule out a deliberate murder, it is very rare for a husband and wife to collude in such a crime. Resnick notes "scattered reports where both husband and wife planned the murder ... usually because they could see no way out of their poverty." Does that sound like the Ramseys?

What it comes down to is this: The Ramseys are being accused of an abomination less on the basis of evidence than on our censorious expectations about what parents should be. The Ramseys do not weep enough. They dressed up their little girl like a grown-up -- like a whore. They made her perform for strangers. They wanted her to be a paperback version of themselves. By destroying what is left of the Ramsey family, we can persuade ourselves that they inhabit another world, one that the rest of us of course renounce.

But that doesn't make the Ramseys killers. Sure, there are troubling aspects to the case. If it was an outsider, where are the footprints? What are we to make of Patsy Ramsey's broken paintbrush? Still, I would rather be wrong about their guilt later than wrong about their presumption of innocence now. And I won't believe they are guilty until I see much better evidence than the unexamined bits and pieces and groundless suppositions thrown at us by a blitheringly incompetent police department and a sensation-seeking press corps.

By Mark Hunter

Mark Hunter has written for the New York Times Magazine, Le Monde Diplomatique and Modern Maturity, among other publications. He has won numerous awards, including the H.L. Mencken Award.

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