Now, as fond fathers,
Having bound up the threat’ning twigs of birch,
Only to stick it in their children’s sight
For terror, not to use, in time the rod
Becomes more mock’d than fear’d; so our decrees,
Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead,
And liberty plucks justice by the nose . . .
Measure for Measure I. iii. 23
Through her death, JonBenet Ramsey wove blond strands of her hair and a garrote in the fabric of American mythology. Her story still rises from her Atlanta grave. The strangulation and sexual molestation sickens us. JonBenet’s tortured corpse, a few clues and a fictitious ransom note will forever tantalize Americans and the world. JonBenet Ramsey’s story also will never have the finality of law. There will never be a trial. The popular suspect, Patsy Ramsey, is dead.
Who killed JonBenet Ramsey? I don’t know. I do know to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty that Patsy Ramsey wrote the ransom note. She was involved. Acting independently or in a conspiracy with John, Burke or an intruder Patsy Ramsey disguised the murder of JonBenet with a faked kidnapping. Patsy Ramsey is damned in my eyes.
Here is the sad ending: JonBenet will never receive justice. There will be no trial. No one will face a jury. Had someone faced charges, the ransom note led directly to Patsy Ramsey. There once stood suspects on national television, and, before our eyes, an intruder theory replaced them. Everyone knew the case from television and in tabloids, newspapers and, in its infancy – the internet. Now, nobody knows! Not even the new prosecutor elected to office in 2008.
In his meeting with reporter Carol Mckinley in 2009, Boulder District Attorney, Stanley L. Garret, commented on the progress in the Ramsey case. He held up a copy of Larry Schiller’s Perfect Murder, Perfect Town. Justice will have to outwait the intruder theory reported by Schiller. By never filing charges, the rod was spared the parents. JonBenet spoils in the ground. JonBenet exposed a justice system where rich suspects can buy perfect justice for themselves. That is, justice without charges – justice without trial – justice by press. The social and political machinery of the American justice system denied JonBenet a trial of any suspect in 1999 when the Grand Jury passed the issue. A decade passes. Years tick by. A suspect dies. Witnesses age. The ransom note, useless as evidence against anyone dead, is buried in some dusty box of evidence.
Fortunately for John Ramsey, or Burke, there will be no trial. Mary Keenan Lacy, the once Boulder DA, “cleared” Mr. Ramsey from any involvement in the tragedy in 2006. Her opinion doesn’t carry the authority of law, but it is a train wreck of evidence for any future DA to surmount. Ms. Mary Keenan Lacy’s comment smacks of political rhetoric soaring over her responsibilities as an elected law enforcement official. Nevertheless, no prosecutor would bring charges against John Ramsey, or anyone else, short of a confession. Even a confession would result in no trial. A confession would be as satisfying a resolution as a trial, more so, perhaps, though less dramatic. But, few hold their breath waiting for someone to confess to killing JonBenet, save a wing-nut like John Mark Karr. Wing-nuts do go to trial, but not often for crimes they can only imagine, as Mr. Karr did.
For John Ramsey, the cost of no trial over a trial probably exceeded what a trial may have cost. The outcome, however, was certain and safer. That is the epitome of great lawyering. Still, he has paid dearly for the death of his daughter. As sure as the American Constitution decrees a right against self-incrimination, it permits rich and powerful people to assert their rights. The poor can try. The middle class sometimes do. And, when a few poor or middle class stiffs do go to trial, it’s only because Americans really do believe justice exists. Even if the wrong truth is found at trial, and the guilty go free or the innocent go to prison, the trial settles the case as to justice, or, at least, a truth to live by. Juries do make mistakes, as do judges, lawyers and prosecutors. Appeal courts exist to fix mistakes. But, there is no decree of justice for JonBenet Ransey. There is no legal decision to turn to or question. That is what begs investigation. Why? How did the system fail? And, for God’s sake, let’s fix it!
Lawyers, the people we hire to fix things when trouble arises, made out well. A few reputations suffered. They returned to or retired from their practices. The lawyers for Lewis and me billed over $1,000,000. The press did great! Cozy with the money and power of business and politics, the press investigated where it was told to look and sold soap. It took tabloid brash and money to dig up skeletons and sell the bones. It took even more brash and money to silence the sale of soap or bones.
Whatever the facts, JonBenet’s story will never die. Officially, it remains and will remain “unsolved.” There is no miracle of DNA that survived the cleansing of the Ramsey home or the bungling of those first on the scene and the doubts raised, bought and spun into a bizarre story in a world history of bizarre stories. The press sought to report on justice, found injustice and left town for the next story. The press itself became part of the story, not simply on a human level, but on a systemic level. The press isn’t the watchdog of the public anymore; it has become the watchdog of the status quo, a toothless shill to sell tooth paste. The press reports what is safe and spins what is risky.
JonBenet Ramsey will never be forgotten, not because the American public truly knew her or loved her as it does now, but because her story broke boundaries. We pity her and her exploited innocence yet can only gawk at the relentless failure of justice to find, to accuse, to try any perpetrator for the violation of her body and taking her life. We gawk at the non-mystery, embrace an intruder, then shrug our shoulders that we could do no better as a nation of laws to prevent intruders, denying the theory of sick parents, based upon the threat of a lawsuit. In terms of our short lives, the punishment of anyone in the tragedy will never restore the lost faith in “the system.” John Ramsey will follow his wife to the grave, as will Burke follow his father, and you and I shall follow each other. What archive, what memories, will be left to solve the mystery of JonBenet?
JonBenet would be in college. With her looks, brains and beauty contestant training, the boys from Boulder High School to Hollywood would have lined up for her. Like the privileged child of a lot of privileged children raised in Boulder, JonBenet would be spoiled. A car as a birthday present and no need for a job to buy gas, accommodates over-privileged children. Though not as close to Hollywood in life as in death, JonBenet’s family wealth could have opened doors. A tomboy as a child, JonBenet would have found sports inviting. Growing up in Colorado and Charlevoix, she would have lived in sunshine and learned to ski on snow or water. Travel and performance had also shaped JonBenet. Who knows what else? Her beauty pageant prowess coupled with her mother’s ambition could have launched a modeling or acting career. She didn’t sing well, but she could dance. By age six, she had been groomed to know, to use and to show her sex appeal. She was smart and too worldly. She held as much promise in academe as the glamour industry. No one will ever know. Hers is the face of childhood tragedy, the tragic character who lost her innocence and died. She was just a little girl who wanted to read fairy tales, not become the murdered princess.
Patsy Ramsey fought cancer and lost. She and her stalwarts like Susan Stein worked the internet chat rooms and combated any assertion of her involvement in the tragedy both online and in law suits. The “former Miss West Virginia” introduced herself for twenty years and more as “the former Miss West Virginia” until she could introduce herself as the internationally known, Patsy Ramsey. She campaigned for her husband as he sought election to the Michigan House of Representatives. After defeat in the Republican primary, John Ramsey went quietly. That is his style, quietly, not necessarily softly. He returned to his private world, shadowed by Jon Benet’s death, Patsy’s death, and his wealth shared with many, many lawyers.
Little is heard of Burke Ramsey and that is the best for him. His parents, though willing to leap at interviews and into the spotlight, protected him from publicity, interviews and most suspicions. Whatever memories Burke has of Christmas night 1996 have aged as much as he has. No doubt, he has the answers to the truths he needs in order to live. No matter if his truth is real or distorted, his memories clear or imagined, he suffers the real losses of both his sister and his mother. He deserved better as a child despite the nature of the inter-relationships of his sister, parents and himself. No doubt the happiness and innocence of his childhood suffocated in the toxins of his sister’s death and his own unimaginable personal hell. One hopes, given the Ramsey money, that Burke is, at the very least well treated, and hopefully, healed.
If Alex Hunter showed a well-funded yellow streak by failing to charge the Ramseys, America’s media and publishing industry set a new standard for profits over principles, accompanied by a healthy sense of self-preservation, over public responsibility. The free press does not stand up to the bullies in politics or government when it rightfully fears for its financial future. In the case of JonBenet, as the government jailed the sources of journalists and arrested and charged Craig Lewis, journalists ostracized the tabloid nature of his reporting and ran like chickens rather than stand up and root out the facts that would expose the systemic failures in any prosecution of JonBenet’s parents. Ugly as the citizens of Boulder found the tabloid press, for a while only the tabs showed the leadership and courage to publish as much of the truth as could be purchased.
The free press is not a free press when it will abstain from the truth to avoid the liability of expressing truth. The “absence of malice” standard set in the United States in New York Times v. Sullivan in 1964 may represent a grand ideal, but ideals do not sell advertising or support the bottom line. Far safer and cheaper to milk the intruder theory from time to time, or to have interviewed John and Patsy as the grieving parents, than to suggest complicity or any conspiracy to cover up secrets of their daughter’s end. Alex Hunter came out of his retirement for an interview to claim there was never enough evidence to indict the Ramseys. He liked the spotlight and The Globe’s reporters so much during the investigation that he destroyed his credibility. It was Alex Hunter who proclaimed to the world during a press conference early on that, “We know who you are.” And, now he doesn’t?
Mary Keenan Lacy, the former Boulder District Attorney who followed Hunter’s departure, insinuated herself to John and Patsy, their civil lawyers and their investigator, Lou Smit and University of Colorado journalism professor, Michael Tracy. Ignoring caution and jurisprudence with the arrest of teacher, pedophile, lunatic, John Karr, she remained determined to clear the Ramseys with rhetoric and remained clueless to any other path of investigation other than the intruder theory. She kept the investigative files out of the public eye, preventing release of information when defendants in the numerous Ramsey lawsuits sought that information for their self-defense. Keenan-Lacy relied on Lou Smit, writer of the intruder theory, to aid in the investigation. She left her credibility at the microphones following her press conference in 2006 when she announced the first and only arrest in JonBenet’s murder – lunatic John Mark Karr.
Steve Thomas resigned from the Boulder Police Department. He moved with his wife to Germany with whatever was left of his $100,000 advance for his book, JonBenet: Inside the Ramsey Murder Investigation. He later returned to the U.S. John Eller, the Boulder Police Lieutenant who declined to separately interview the Ramseys at the crime scene because they were “credible millionaires,” also left the Boulder Police Department. Linda Arndt, the Boulder Police Department’s victim’s advocate, knelt over JonBenet’s violated body and looked into John Ramsey’s eyes after he brought the corpse from the basement. There, frightened by the ice in those eyes, she mentally counted how many rounds she had in her service pistol. She resigned also. A few years later, Arndt saw her lawsuit dismissed against the Boulder Police Department for using her as a scapegoat in the press after the bungled investigation. Former Boulder Police Chief, Tom Koby, resigned in the first wave of the media tsunami. Mark Beckner rose to the office of Boulder’s top cop, and is still minding his tongue.
Hal Haddon, one who has always had a knack for deliberation before speaking, does not often comment publicly. He disengaged himself from the couple once the grand jury voted not to indict. The law firm of Haddon, Morgan & Foreman continues to thrive. Haddon keeps his distance from the press, knowing how easily the press can be called and how difficult it is to call the press off.
Craig Lewis, for all of his bravado and cunning as the ringmaster of the Ramsey media circus, is, at heart, a very tender man. He was loyal to me when loyalty paid the bills and for as long as he could get the bills paid. The tabloids used him up, just as they use up anyone who becomes a subject of their stories. Craig Lewis had no voice in the deal that his lawyers cut for him. Had he gone to trial on principle in defiance of profits, his employers would have thrown him to the lions, just like they did me. Neither of us would have been better off for the gesture.
After the debacle of his indictment and the checkbook dismissal in Colorado, Lewis was promoted, got a better contract and transferred to another tabloid, The Star. He liked working as a tabloid editor – the scoops, the tips, the drama and the power. He hated assuming a part in the JonBenet Ramsey story. Craig expressed little conscience while wreaking havoc in the lives of the people he investigated and wrote about. But, he did have a conscience, and it drove him out of the tabloid business. He got his first job with the tabloids as the author of several investigative books, both in true crime and in fiction. He was smart, engaging and hilariously funny when he wanted or needed a laugh. When he left the tabloids, he moved first to Las Vegas, and now produces advertisements in Austin, Texas. He found a friend when he bought his dog.
When Dennis Hall was appointed a District Court Judge in Jefferson County, I called to congratulate him. I meant it. He wants to be a decent man. His principles militate toward justice when he can find it. He wanted justice for JonBenet Ramsey. All Americans want justice.
Finding a respect for the law based upon my acquittal, I found greater collegiality with other lawyers. We see what grows in the legal system. We do our best, some more, some less, to find justice, even when it means going to trial on a hopeless case. Without trials, I don’t believe there would be a justice system. When it was time to go to trial, Gary Lozow taught me, “You work the system and the system works.” If only the prosecutors in Boulder had worked the system for JonBenet Ramsey instead of performing before the press, perhaps she would not lay cold and neglected, utterly bereft of right over wrong, innocent in her grave. If there are ghosts, I hope JonBenet will not confine her visitations to the horrors of her last moments on earth. I hope her specter frightens every man, woman and child in every court house in America. She is the Ghost of Justice.