Solving the JonBenet Case

Oct 10, 2009 - by Ryan Ross - 0 Comments

April 14, 2003

JonBenet Ramsey

JonBenet Ramsey

by Ryan Ross

Copyright by Ryan Ross. 2003. All rights reserved.

Related Story: The Murder of JonBenét Ramsey by JJ Maloney and J. Patrick O'Connor

Editor's Note:

On July 9, 2008, Boulder County District Attorney Mary Lacy stated that DNA tests conducted by Bode Technology Group revealed that skin cells left behind on JonBenet Ramsey's long underwear point to a killer other than the girl's parents, John and Patsy Ramsey, or her brother, Burke. Mrs. Ramsey died of ovarian cancer in 2006 at age 49.

"To the extent that we may have contributed in any way to the public perception that you might have been involved in this crime, I am deeply sorry," Lacy wrote in an exoneration letter to John Ramsey, who now has remarried and lives in Michigan. "No innocent person should have to endure such an extensive trial in the court of public opinion."

Early in the investigation into the 6-year-old pageant star's brutal murder on Christmas night in 1996, Lacy said that Boulder police discovered male DNA in a drop of blood on JonBenet's underwear that did not match any members of JonBenet's immediate family. The tests conducted by Bode Technology Group, Lacy said, revealed the same DNA that was found previously in the drop of blood was present in three places on JonBenet's long underwear.

Lacy stated that Boulder investigators now hope they'll eventually find a DNA match in the ever-expanding national DNA databank, a sentiment echoed by John Ramsey. "I think the people that are in charge of the investigation are focused on that, and that gives me a lot of comfort," Mr. Ramsey said in an interview with a Denver TV station. "Certainly we are grateful that they acknowledged that we, based on that, certainly could not have been involved."

Even if a DNA match is eventually made, it does not mean that the DNA from this contaminated crime scene will reveal it to be that of JonBenet's killer, although it possibly could. For now, all that is known, is that it is not the DNA of John, Burke, or the late Patsy Ramsey. In the meantime, the JonBenet case will continue unsolved and will remain one of the most botched crime investigations in the annals of U.S. law enforcement.


It's time for closure. More than six years have passed since JonBenet Ramsey was killed. Most all the evidence is in. The principals have had more than enough time to ponder, scrutinize, and digest. The grand jurors have long since heard, deliberated, and gone home without a peep. The new district attorney isn't up to the job. The media are desperate for a climax — any climax.

The public — misled by assorted media jackals clamoring for microwave justice — pines for a murder trial that will never happen, all but resigned to an O.J.-esque outcome in which there is no closure, and where doubts and suspicions linger as long as memory allows.

Some have moved on. Others will perpetuate the hand wringing about how the system failed.

No one will be satisfied. And the truth will remain buried.

But there is a way out of the morass. The mysterious 1996 killing of beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey of Boulder, Colo., doesn't have to be another O.J. There is still time. The police blunders were not fatal. The right laws are on the Colorado books. Secret statements by prosecutors suggest the evidence is strong. All that's needed now is a strong Colorado governor willing to intervene by appointing a special prosecutor to take over the case.

Even if Gov. Bill Owens does appoint a special prosecutor, getting to the bottom of the mystery is not going to be easy. The key players all bring ample flaws to the table. The process has more potholes than pavement. And given the track record of events since the night JonBenet was killed, more blunders by those responsible for ensuring justice are likely.

But it can happen nonetheless, and it won't take a miracle.

Before dissecting the killing, it's important to remember why the JonBenet saga has topped the "who-dun-it" charts for six years now. The same factors that helped JonBenet attract the spotlight in life worked even more powerfully in death. She was the epitome of American beauty. Long blond hair. Big eyes. High cheek bones. A disarming smile. Watching her sashay across the stage as she competed in a succession of beauty pageants, twirling her hair, swinging her hips, and doing a mini-dance while wearing outfits that seemed right off a Paris runway fashion show, it's clear she could easily breach the line — even if she didn't mean to — between the feminine innocence beauty-pageant sponsors profess to spotlight, and something more deliberate and calculating. One reporter watching videos of JonBenet's stage performances described her appeal as a "coquettish allure that stopped just short of being seductive."

Seductiveness being in the eye of the beholder, few would have much noted JonBenet's stage persona — even after her killing — except for one glaring feature that transcends even her astonishing good looks: at the time of her death, she was 6 years old.

Barely old enough to be in school.

Yet old enough to be a beauty-pageant queen several times over.

And old enough to die a gruesome death, in the comfort of her own home, no less, under circumstances that suggested her loving parents may have killed her.

The media, understandably, went nuts, attracted by an unsolved murder (what appeared to be a murder, anyway), invoking the image of the Keystone Kops as they reported the police blunders (starting with the failure to properly secure the crime scene), examining the question of whether the Ramseys' wealth won them protection from the law, exposing the world of beauty pageants for 6-year-olds, chronicling each blow of the almost unheard of battle between police and prosecutors (who at times seemed to be as interested in investigating each other as JonBenet's killing), breathlessly reporting the reassignments and resignations of key law enforcement personnel (a police detective, the lead police commander on the case, the police chief), the dueling angry resignations by embittered detectives (one on the police force, the other in the district attorney's office), the sideshow criminal cases (for release of the autopsy photos and for bribery in an attempt to get the ransom note), and the more than a dozen civil cases spawned as so-and-so sued so-and-so for slander, libel, or defamation.

Oh, and positively salivating at the opportunity to print pictures of gorgeous JonBenet, and replay again and again the videotapes of her oh-so-cute stage performances that quickly made the rounds. If some viewers thought JonBenet looked sexy, who in the media would argue? Sex sells, even 6-year-old sex. "It's a sick curiosity," then Boulder Police Chief Tom Koby complained.

Maybe. Certainly powerful. The case has spawned a dozen books, two documentaries, a made-for-TV movie, a slew of web sites and Internet forums, more supermarket tabloid headlines than Jennifer Lopez, Gary Condit, and all the TV reality shows combined, dozens of network prime-time magazine and morning-show segments, and countless hours of gabfests on the cable talk-shows. JonBenet has outdone O.J., and a possible trial is still to come (if Colorado's governor finally gets involved).

Underlying the hype are two threads to the story that even those jaded by yet another so called "crime-of-the-century" have difficulty resisting. The first, of course, is JonBenet herself. She seemed to hold promise for a special life, and not just because of her looks. "I remember coming home and telling my wife 'I saw an angel tonight,'" Bill McReynolds said of the day he met JonBenet. McReynolds was playing Santa that day. "She was one of the only children who ever talked to me who didn't ask for anything," McReynolds recalled. "Instead, she gave."

"I've said I don't think there's anyone too good for this world," McReynolds said at JonBenet's memorial service. "But she was pretty close."

The other compelling thread is JonBenet's parents. They couldn't have killed their daughter, could they have? "From a kid's viewpoint," columnist Wendy Underhill wrote in the Boulder Weekly soon after the killing, "if it becomes even a remote possibility that the murderer was someone close to the child, then family itself ceases to be a secure refuge. It touches on what must be a child's ultimate nightmare: that Mommy or Daddy will kill her.

"Ordinarily such a thought keeps to its place: the deep, dark subconscious. JonBenet's death has brought it into the light. At some point a child's cocoon is stripped away, but surely 6-year-olds don't need to learn about horror on the home front yet. Please, my heart asks, let it be anyone but Mom or Dad."

The New Evidence

This scenario for unraveling the mystery of the Dec. 25-26, 1996 slaying of beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey is based in large part on documents not in the public record, including complete transcripts of the interviews of John and Patsy Ramsey conducted by law enforcement officials in 1997, 1998, and 2000.

Videotapes of the interviews were given late last year to NBC, CNN, and CBS by, of all people, the Ramsey's attorney, L. Lin Wood of Atlanta. The networks didn't seem to know what to do with them. NBC hasn't used them at all as far as I have been able to tell. CBS cited them briefly during a "48 Hours" segment. And all CNN did was give them to Larry King, who gave Ramsey attorney Wood yet another platform to defend his clients. If Wood's motive in releasing the videotapes was to use them to his clients' PR advantage and pre-empt a damaging leak from police, it worked like a charm.

As it happens, these interviews are a treasure chest of information. They contain the most complete account of statements by John and Patsy Ramsey. They also reveal the most thorough detailing of the evidence against them, including the first glimpse into evidence heard by the grand jury impaneled in 1998 to investigate the slaying. And they provide a key to understanding the case.

So breathe deep, let go of preconceived notions, and start by considering the possibility that the one premise in the case repeated by the media more often than any other — that JonBenet was murdered — is wrong.

Was It Murder?

There are two important components of a death that form the basis for a conclusion of murder. The first is what the deceased's body reveals about the circumstances of death.

The best evidence that JonBenet was murdered has always been the force of the blow to her head and the apparent viciousness of her strangulation. Each is a flimsy foundation for a conclusion of murder. As a legal term, "murder" occurs when someone acts with the intent to kill. To say the power of a blow to the head speaks to the intent of the one delivering it is a crude tool for legal analysis. The blow, no matter how hard, could have been accidental, or unintentionally life-threatening. And the strangulation, if done on a limp, seemingly lifeless body, could have been motivated by someone's desire to stage the scene to distract. Tie a cord around her neck and stick a finger in her vagina and you'll have people thinking sex crime. Some did.

That sequence is consistent with what forensic pathologists told Boulder police had likely happened, according to Det. Steve Thomas in his book on the case (JonBenet: Inside the Ramsey Murder Investigation) and author Lawrence Schiller (Perfect Murder, Perfect Town). Schiller, citing unnamed "specialists," and Thomas, citing Michigan pathologist Dr. Werner Spitz, say pathologists told police that someone struck JonBenet in the head with a bat or a metal object such as a flashlight (each was found in the home, clean of fingerprints). Her skull was fractured. Massive brain damage was instantaneous. She could never have regained consciousness.

She was then strangled by someone who placed a cord around her neck and twisted it tight with a garrote fashioned from a paintbrush in the basement of the Ramsey home. JonBenet offered no resistance. The strangulation stopped all of JonBenet's bodily functioning, but in time the blow to the head would have been fatal by itself. The strangler could easily have believed JonBenet was dead, in which case the strangler couldn't be a murderer because you can't murder someone you think is dead, even if you were, as it turned out, wrong.

The forensic evidence from the body, then, is inconclusive. It could have been murder. But the blow to her head could just as easily have been unintentional.

The belief that JonBenet was murdered is so ingrained in public perception of the case in part because Boulder law-enforcement officials have consistently said she was murdered, and the media have dutifully repeated that conclusion. How else to explain what happened to her? In fact, from the beginning of the case there never has been anything about what JonBenet's body shows that couldn't be just as easily explained by an accident and then a cover-up designed to distract. That's one reason famed criminologist Henry Lee (famous, largely, because of his work on the O.J. case) repeatedly urged Boulder officials to consider the possibility they were dealing with the result of an accident. "Whether ... it was murder or an accidental death with staging of the crime scene remains an open question in my mind," Lee wrote in his 2001 book Famous Crimes Revisited.

The next step in determining whether someone was murdered is identifying a perpetrator with motive. The weakness of the forensic evidence as proof of murder is all the more glaring when combined with the complete lack of evidence either parent had any reason to harm, let alone murder, JonBenet. All indications are that each loved her as fervently as the most loving of parents.

JonBenet's brother, Burke, who was 9 at the time of his sister's death, arguably had motive to kill her, if one is willing to allow that sibling rivalry can sometimes escalate into violent rage. And a 9-year-old is certainly less able to judge the result of a blow to the head than an adult, or be able to deliver a measured blow designed to punish instead of kill. Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter is among those who privately considered the possibility that Burke played a role in the death of his sister. "I wonder if Burke is involved in this," Hunter mused out loud one day, former Boulder police detective Steve Thomas wrote in his book.

Hunter declared publicly in 1999 that Burke wasn't a suspect in his sister's death. But later events suggested that statement wasn't as definitive as it seemed. In 2000 Hunter refused a request by Ramsey attorney Wood to sign a statement declaring under oath that "all questions related to" Burke's "possible involvement" in the death of his sister "were resolved to the satisfaction of investigators." He also refused to declare that Burke "has never been viewed by investigators as a suspect." Nor would he say that Burke "has not been and is not a suspect."

Hunter did, however, agree to language in which he declared that "no evidence has ever been developed ... to justify elevating Burke Ramsey's status from witness to suspect," and there is nothing in the transcripts of the interviews of the Ramseys to suggest any such evidence was developed.

So whatever Hunter's suspicions about Burke, he wasn't able to substantiate them.

If Burke killed his sister, child psychologists can debate endlessly the issue of whether a 9-year-old has the psychological capacity for intent for murder without reaching consensus. In Colorado, the issue is settled by law: No one under the age of 10 can be charged with any crime. They know not what they do, Coloradans have decided. If Burke is the killer, he's not — legally, anyway — a murderer, and JonBenet wasn't — legally, anyway — murdered. When Hunter said in 1999 that Burke wasn't a suspect in his sister's murder, he could also have said that from a legal standpoint Burke couldn't be. He was too young.

The best case for murder has always rested on the possibility of an intruder. Among other mysteries, unidentified DNA under JonBenet's fingernails and in her panties, an unidentified pubic hair in the white blanket found with her body, an unidentified palm print on the door to the room in which JonBenet's body was found, an unidentified Hi-Tec boot imprint in the basement room in which JonBenet's body was found, and bruises on JonBenet's body that suggest to some the use of a stun-gun mark all combine to make it clear there is no way of excluding the possibility of an intruder. Lou Smit, the retired Colorado Springs cop hired by Boulder D. A. Alex Hunter to sift the evidence, is right: Possible intruders have to be identified and investigated.

It doesn't help the intruder theorists, however, that many of the list of clues Smit says point to an intruder fell by the wayside as the investigation proceeded:

    • Forensic examiners said the pubic hair might not be a pubic hair, and in any event many Ramsey houseguests slept in JonBenet's bed when she wasn't home.
    • The DNA under JonBenet's fingernails was old and degraded, according to the Rocky Mountain News, and didn't indicate she had struggled with anyone.
    • The DNA in her panties wasn't from seminal fluid and was so flimsy, the News quoted a prosecutor as saying, that the manufacturer could have put it there.
    • Dr. Spitz says that what appears to be stun gun marks aren't such marks.
    • The palm print on the basement door turned out on further review to belong to Melinda Ramsey, one of John Ramsey's children from his first marriage, the News reported last year citing "a source close to the case."

And the mystery of the Hi-Tec boot imprint was solved in grand jury testimony. Prosecutors disclosed in the 2000 interviews of the Ramseys that Burke and one of his friends had told jurors that Burke owned a pair of Hi-Tec boots — something his parents said they somehow overlooked or forgot when they told authorities no one in the family owned such a boot, even though there is a distinctive compass on the boot.

More importantly, as an explanation of what happened that night, the intruder theory is problematic. It's difficult to get around the ransom note Patsy Ramsey reported finding early the morning of the Dec. 26th. The author clearly had no fear of detection because he or she wrote the mother of all ransom notes while in the Ramsey home, using paper and pen from the home. Under the intruder scenario, he/she entered the home and killed JonBenet without detection while the child's parents and brother slept, and was therefore free to leave without being detected. For the intruder to pen a three-page ransom note and leave behind the strongest evidence that would link him or her to the killing suggests he/she was either stupid or trying to get caught.

A federal judge who last month tossed out a defamation suit against the Ramseys declared there is "abundant evidence" for the intruder theory. But as a vehicle for truth finding the ruling is of little value. The judge didn't have access to the police files. She didn't know about the grand-jury testimony of Burke and a friend that Burke owned a Hi-Tec boot. In writing her decision, she was unable to fashion a coherent explanation for the actions of the intruder in writing a long ransom note while in the Ramsey home. Such an intruder would have been at risk of discovery. Further she offers no explanation for why an intruder, who had killed rather than kidnapped JonBenet and left her body in the cellar, would leave a ransom note, knowing that as soon as a thorough search of the house was conducted no ransom could be obtained. (For a detailed dissection of the judge's ruling, click here.)

Following a briefing about a year after JonBenet's death, members of the FBI's Child Abduction and Serial Killer Unit (the Silence of the Lambs unit) said they believed there had never been any kidnapping. "These guys, who do it everyday," Boulder police detective Steve Thomas told John Ramsey when he interviewed him in 1997, "say ... there were clearly steps taken in this case to make this look like something it wasn't. (They said) 'This is how it happens in the movies. It is not how it happens in real life.' And they said all that was done... was made to make this look like something that wasn't there."

"They had the gut feeling," Thomas writes in his book on the case, "that 'no one intended to kill this child.'"


In contrast to the intruder theory, the accident/cover-up theory provides a framework that appears to fit the publicly available evidence, and the most significant secret evidence revealed in the transcripts of the interviews with the Ramseys conducted in their attorney's office in Atlanta in August of 2000.

In the course of the interview with Patsy Ramsey, prosecutors asserted that investigators had found:

      • Fibers on the sticky side of the duct tape John Ramsey removed from his daughter's mouth when he says he discovered her body in the basement wine cellar that are "identical" to fibers in the red sweater-jacket Patsy was photographed wearing at a Christmas dinner at a friends' house the previous day.
      • Fibers from the same type of jacket in the paint tray from which a brush was taken that was used to help fashion the ligature found around JonBenet's neck.
      • Fibers from the same type of jacket "tied into" the ligature.
      • Fibers from the same type of black wool shirt made in Israel that John Ramsey wore to the Christmas dinner "in" the panties JonBenet was wearing when she found and in her "crotch area."

The most notable mention of any of this evidence in the public record is in the book by former Boulder police Det. Thomas, one of the principal investigators in the case before he resigned in 1998. He writes that fibers from the jacket Patsy had been wearing were found to be "chemically and microscopically consistent" with four fibers found on the inside of the piece of duct tape John Ramsey found on his daughter's mouth when he discovered JonBenet's body.

For all his zeal in pointing an accusing finger at Patsy Ramsey (he concludes in his book that she killed her daughter), Thomas downplays the significance of the fiber evidence from the duct tape. He notes that when John removed the tape from the mouth of his daughter's body, he "dropped it," as John told investigator Smit in 1998, and it may therefore have fallen on the blanket JonBenet's body was wrapped in, which, according to Patsy, came from JonBenet's bed, where it might have picked up the fibers from Patsy's red sweater-jacket when Patsy tucked JonBenet in the previous night or on some prior occasion.

Moreover, prosecutors may have misrepresented the fiber evidence in their interviews with the Ramseys, or overstated the strength of the conclusions. Although they at one point said the fibers found on the duct tape were "identical" to fibers in Patsy's red sweater-jacket, it's likely that the match is only to that type of jacket, not the exact jacket that Patsy wore.

Nonetheless, the likelihood of there having been a jacket of that type in the house when JonBenet died owned by someone other than Patsy is remote. Assuming prosecutors accurately summarized the results of the fiber comparisons, the implication is that four fibers found on the inside of the tape put over JonBenet's mouth by someone who was trying to control, or kill her, or cover-up the circumstances of her death matched the VERY type of article of clothing Patsy had been wearing the last time she says she saw her daughter alive.

Det. Thomas doesn't write in his book about the fibers from Patsy's sweater-jacket found in the paint tray or on the ligature found tied to JonBenet's neck, or the fibers from John's shirt found in JonBenet's panties and crotch. Those results apparently weren't in when Thomas quit the force in 1998. They are examined publicly for the first time here.

THE PAINT TRAY - Photographs show the paint tray was located outside the door to the wine cellar in which JonBenet's body was found, and thus well removed from the blanket that creates the possible contamination problem with the fibers on the duct tape. The fibers were put in the paint tray sometime before or during the time a brush in the tray was used to tighten the cord around JonBenet's neck, because Patsy didn't have access to the tray thereafter. Patsy told prosecutors she had never worn the red sweater-jacket while painting. So there is no readily apparent explanation for how the fibers could have gotten there in a manner that doesn't implicate Patsy in the use of the brush in the paint tray around the time of her daughter's death.

THE LIGATURE - This was an instrument fashioned for the apparent purpose of controlling JonBenet (it was like a collar and leash used on a dog), strangling her, or "staging" the crime scene to make it look like there had been an intruder. In any case, the only way fibers from ANY type of Patsy's clothing could make their way innocently onto this instrument would be if the fibers attached themselves to the paint brush used to make the ligature at some prior time, when it was simply a paint brush. Thus an innocent explanation runs into the same problems as does the explanation of how the fibers from Patsy's sweater/jacket came to be in the paint tray (why THAT piece of clothing when Patsy never wore it while painting?), and it runs into the additional problems created by the switch from the innocent use of a paint brush to the felonious use of the ligature. Patsy told investigators there were no broken brushes in her paint tray prior to the night JonBenet was killed. So the brush in question was broken the night JonBenet died by someone trying to control or kill her, or stage the crime scene.

THE PANTIES - John Ramsey told investigator Smit in his 1998 interview that while he had carried a sleeping JonBenet to bed after the family returned from their Christmas Day outing, he did not undress her. Patsy did. Patsy confirmed that. There is, therefore, no obvious way to explain why fibers from the type of shirt John was wearing when he says he put her to bed were found in her underpants and "crotch area."

What the Ramseys Say

In the June 1998 interviews with the Ramseys at a police station in a city near Boulder, a detective told Patsy that police had "trace evidence that appears to link you to the death of JonBenet (an apparent reference to the fibers from her jacket found on the duct tape on JonBenet's mouth)", thereby triggering the only speech Patsy made during three days of interviews.

"That's just totally impossible," Patsy insisted. "Go re-test."

"How is it impossible?" Detective Tom Haney asked.

"I did not kill my child. I did not have a thing to do with it."

"I'm not talking someone's guess or some rumor or some (newspaper) story. I'm talking...."

"I don't care what you're talking about!"

"...about scientific evidence."

"I don't give a flip how scientific it is. Go back to the damn drawing board. I didn't do it. John didn't do it. And we didn't have a clue of anybody who did do it. So we all gotta start working together from here - this day forward to try to find out who the hell did it! I mean, I appreciate being here. It's very hard to be here, but it's a damned sight harder to be sittin' at home in Atlanta, Georgia, wondering every second or every day what you guys are doing out here. You know? Have you found anything? Are we any closer? Is the guy out there watching my house? Is my son safe? My life has been hell from that day forward. And I want nothing more than to find out who is responsible for this. Okay? I mean I wanna work with you, not against you. Okay? This child is the most precious thing in my life. And I can't stand the thought thinking somebody's out there walking on the street. God knows he might do it again to some other child. You know? Quit screwin' around asking me about things that are ridiculous and let's find the person who did this! Criminy."

Because most of the fiber evidence was developed after the 1998 interviews, the Ramseys were not asked about it that year. Prosecutors wanted to do so in the interviews conducted in August of 2000 in Atlanta, where the Ramseys have lived since about six months after JonBenet died.

John Ramsey was told fibers from the shirt he had been wearing Christmas Day were found in JonBenet's panties. "Bullshit," he said. "If you're trying to disgrace my relationship with my daughter.....that's disgusting."

But Ramsey attorney Wood blocked questioning of Patsy on the subject, saying that he wouldn't allow his clients to answers questions about it unless he was given the lab reports. Without such access, Wood suggested his clients were being asked to comment on something that might be more accurately characterized as opinion than fact. "You're sitting here making a record saying that it's a fact, and I don't know that," he said, suggesting that many other fibers were likely found in those locations and that the lab result may have been that the fibers in the clothes of the parents were "similar to" the fibers found at the scene, not identical to.

"I don't want this record to be accusatory based on your statement about the fibers," Wood continued. "Fiber evidence is... I won't say 'weak,' but let's just say that is the subject of a great amount of debate in the profession."

Prosecutor Bruce Levin says he was simply trying to give Patsy an opportunity to offer an innocent explanation for the fibers. But prosecutors refused to give Wood the lab reports on the fibers, and Patsy didn't, therefore, have the opportunity to offer innocent explanations.

In conjunction with this article, Crime Magazine offered Wood the opportunity for him and the Ramseys to answer questions pertaining to the JonBenet case. Crime Magazine's offer included the pledge to publish his or the Ramseys' responses or comments verbatim. Wood did not respond. The offer remains open. To see the questions Crime Magazine wanted to send to Wood, click here.

Wood did, however, tell cable talk-show host Larry King last fall that he "knows for a fact" that black fibers were not found in JonBenet's underwear (he didn't say how he knows this). And he said "there's any one of many innocent explanations for why the fibers (found in the paint tray, on the brush, and in the ligature) might be consistent with something Patsy was wearing." He offered only one such explanation: that Patsy had put JonBenet to bed the previous night. But that couldn't account for the fibers in the paint tray, and they couldn't account for the fibers on the brush used in the ligature and "tied into" the ligature, unless the fibers somehow transferred from Patsy's sweater to JonBenet's clothing and then to the brush and "tied into" the ligature.

Patsy also tried to provide an innocent explanation for the fibers when she spoke to CBS' "48 Hours." She said she had hugged her daughter's body after John discovered it in the basement of their home and brought it upstairs. Fibers from the sweater she was wearing at the time could have transferred to JonBenet's clothing, she suggested.

But the fibers weren't found on JonBenet's clothing. They were found, among other places, in the paint tray, which was in the basement when Patsy hugged her daughter's body upstairs.

In her 1998 interview, Patsy tried to explain why she wore the same sweater the day after Christmas that she had Christmas Day. "I do that (wear the same clothes two days in a row) a lot," she said. "I don't like to do laundry." That's surprising for someone as fashion-conscious as Patsy, a former Miss West Virginia. To Det. Thomas it suggests that Patsy never went to bed the night before, calling into question her entire account of what happened that night and the next morning.

The forceful manner in which Ramsey attorney Wood parried questions from prosecutors to Patsy about the fibers evidence is an indication of how a defense lawyer would attack it in court. But if the fiber evidence is what prosecutors claimed it is in the interviews, the conclusions that can be drawn are simple and powerful: Officials have reason to believe John and Patsy Ramsey may have covered up the circumstances of their daughter's death, there was no intruder because the parents wouldn't cover up for an intruder, and there was no murder because the only three people in the house at the time JonBenet died either didn't have motive to intentionally kill JonBenet, or if Burke had motive, he was too young in the eyes of the law to be capable of having the intent to murder anyone.

There is other evidence that is inconsistent with John and Patsy's account of what happened after they came home on Christmas Day evening:

      • The fingerprints of Patsy and Burke were found on a bowl on a kitchen table from which JonBenet ate pineapple sometime after she arrived home, according to Det. Thomas, something inconsistent with the statements by John and Patsy that JonBenet was asleep when they arrived at home and never woke up. JonBenet had apparently gotten up during the night (or had never gone to sleep) and, with the help of Patsy and/or Burke (either of whom could reach the bowl stored in a cabinet well above the height JonBenet could reach), was served and ate the last food she consumed before she was killed.
      • All five of the fingerprints recovered from the pad on which the ransom note was written that did not belong to policemen, according to Det. Thomas, belonged to Patsy.
      • In a version of the tape of Patsy's call to 911 enhanced by audio technicians consulted by Boulder police, Burke's voice is heard in the background at a time when John and Patsy say Burke was asleep, according to Det. Thomas and author Lawrence Schiller. "Please, what did I do?" Burke asks. "We're not speaking to you," an angry sounding John Ramsey responds. "Help me Jesus, help me Jesus," Patsy says. "What did you find?" Burke pleads.

Moreover, the ransom note was likely written by Patsy, according to Vassar professor and linguistic expert Don Foster (the author of Author Unknown , who unmasked Joe Klein as the author of Primary Colors), David Liebman, former president of the National Association of Document Examiners, and Gideon Epstein, director of the forensics unit of the documents lab at the Immigration and Naturalization Service until he retired in 2000.

"What is your degree of certainty as you sit here today," Ramsey attorney Wood asked Epstein in a deposition last year, "that Patsy Ramsey wrote the note?"

"I am absolutely certain she wrote the note," Epstein replied.

"Is that 60 percent certainty?" Wood asked.

"No, that's 100 percent certainty."

Wood got Epstein to concede that he had reached that conclusion without having access to the original of the note. Vassar professor Foster had told Patsy Ramsey before having access to the note that he believed she didn't write it. The reliability of handwriting and linguistic text analysis is much disputed. And other experts have said they can't conclude Patsy wrote the note. In fact, D.A. Hunter testified in a 2001 deposition taken by Ramsey attorney Wood that the experts he had obtained analysis from concluded, by his estimate, that the odds Patsy wrote the note were 4.5 on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being that she didn't.

The Ramseys may also be able to find an expert concluding that Burke's voice is not on the 911 call. And there may yet be an innocent explanation for the fiber evidence and the pineapple found in JonBenet's stomach after her death that does not call into question her parents' account of what happened that night.

Of course, the most reliable way to assess the strength of the defense the Ramseys can mount is to test it in court.

A Prosecutable Case?

Publicly, Boulder Police Chief Mark Beckner will say only that the Ramseys are "under the umbrella of suspicion." Privately, he revealed in a 2001 deposition, the Ramseys are considered "suspects" because there is a "probability" they were involved in the death of their daughter.

Boulder D.A. Hunter didn't comment publicly on his view of the evidence while he was in office, he has refused to do so since he retired in early 2001, and he didn't respond to a request for comment for this article. (To view the questions Crime Magazine wanted to pose to former D.A. Hunter, click here.) But based on the public record in the case, the transcripts of the interviews with the Ramseys and applicable law, it's clear what some of the factors were that Hunter was weighing as he considered whether to bring charges against the Ramseys.

If the aim was to bring murder charges, there was no evidence of motive, no murder weapon, no witnesses, and a deadly head wound that reflected death by accident as easily as murder. The Ramseys had opportunity and means to kill their daughter, but that's about it.

Lesser charges associated with her killing would have been equally problematic. Negligent homicide would have meant having to prove that the Ramseys were negligent; manslaughter charges that they were somehow reckless and that their recklessness caused JonBenet's death. But Hunter didn't know what instrument had been used that resulted in JonBenet's death, much less who was responsible.

There is, however, another set of charges that Hunter could have considered filing.

Under Colorado law it is illegal to conceal a death if doing so "prevents a determination of the cause or circumstances of death." The first report the Ramseys made to law enforcement was that their daughter was missing and they'd found a ransom note indicating she'd been kidnapped. If the fiber evidence is what prosecutors say it is and if the Ramseys staged the crime scene, the Ramseys knew otherwise. If they decided to conceal the death of their daughter from law enforcement, they effectively "prevented" police from determining the circumstances of JonBenet's death. Police still don't know how she died. The maximum penalty for concealing a death is six-months imprisonment.

It is also illegal for someone to make a report to law enforcement "of a crime or other incident [emphasis added] within their official concern when he knows that it did not occur." None of the statements in the interviews with the Ramseys could be the basis for perjury charges because the Ramseys were not under oath. But "false statement" charges do not require that the person making the statement be under oath. Anyone walking into a police station faces the charge if he or she makes a statement about an incident of police interest he/she knows to be false. The maximum penalty on conviction is a prison term of up to 18 months per false statement.

"Concealing a death" and "false statement" charges are misdemeanors. D.A. Hunter also could have considered a felony charge of falsifying evidence. Under Colorado law, anyone who "destroys, mutilates, conceals, removes or alters physical evidence with intent to impair its verity or availability" or "knowingly makes, presents or offers any false or altered evidence" has illegally tampered with evidence if they believe a law-enforcement investigation is "about to be instituted." Violators are subject to a prison term of 18 months.

Normally, these types of charges are filed in conjunction with charges involving an underlying crime. The cover-up was, say, hatched to hide a wrongful death, for example. But it's not a requirement for conviction that prosecutors prove — or even allege — an underlying crime. Coloradans have seen a recent, high-profile example of this in the case of Koleen Brooks, an ex-mayor of a mountain town, ex-stripper and Playboy pin-up, who was charged with tampering with evidence and false statements after she claimed she'd been assaulted. She was in the midst of a bid to stave-off a recall attempt at the time. Brooks said her political enemies were behind the assault. Prosecutors alleged she invented a phantom assault in a bid for sympathy from voters. Voters recalled Brooks, and earlier this year she was convicted of a misdemeanor count of making a false statement, but acquitted of the more serious felony count of tampering with evidence.

Motive for Cover-up?

Although prosecutors don't have to prove an underlying crime, it helps to be able to provide jurors with a motive for the conduct of defendants. This is why the accident/cover-up theory is a powerful tool for prosecutors in the JonBenet case. Clearly any discussion of a possible motive for cover-up involves some speculation. There are, however, several pieces of evidence that are useful to prosecutors.

The forensic pathologists analyzing the case for Boulder police estimated that between 10 and 45 minutes passed between the time JonBenet sustained her head wound and the time she was strangled, according to author Schiller. If JonBenet's death were the result of an accident, John and Patsy Ramsey would have been faced with an excruciating decision, because reporting the accident would have jeopardized what was left of their family. Officials with the Boulder County social services agency are charged under state law with protecting children, and are authorized to seek a court order removing a child from a home if they believe the child "is neglected or dependent if a parent has subjected him ... to mistreatment or abuse...or the child lacks proper parental care through the actions or omissions of a parent...or the child's environment is injurious to his ... welfare ... or the parent ... fails to provide the child with proper care..." Social services personnel would have had to make an assessment about whether it was safe to leave Burke in the home of a family in which a 6-year-old sibling died as the result of what at best was an accident. If they concluded the parents or Burke were likely negligent (or that they needed time to investigate), that could have led to the removal of Burke from the home. And then John and Patsy Ramsey would have, in effect, lost two children and Patsy's only remaining child (John has two children from a prior marriage).

Precipitating a cover-up and creating a kidnapper/intruder scenario, however, would have avoided having to make disclosures that called into question their fitness as parents, without much additional risk. It's not hard to envision any parent facing those circumstances deciding — in the panic of the night — to take a gamble.

If this is the decision they made, it's worked for them so far. They would have succeeded in what would have been the primary aim of any parents under similar circumstances: keeping Burke out of the hands of a foster home or adoptive parents. "The reason Patsy and I have come through this," John told investigators when they asked whether he had considered suicide, "is because we have Burke. If we didn't have other children, we probably would have checked out a long time ago."

Investigators asked Patsy about the accident theory in 1998. "We'll say that JonBenet got up (sometime during the night)," Det. Tom Haney theorized, "and someone in that house, legally, lawfully in that house, one of the three of you, also happens to be up, or gets up because she makes noise. And there's some discussion or something happens. There's an accident. Somebody..."

Patsy interrupts. "You're going down the wrong path, buddy," she said. "If she got up in the night and ran into somebody, it was somebody that wasn't supposed to be there. I don't know what transpired after that. Whether it was an accident, intentional, premeditated or whatnot. But it was not one of the three members that were also in that house. Period, end of statement."

How then does Patsy square her assertion that no one in the house was involved and that JonBenet was asleep from the moment she arrived home and was awakened by the person who killed her, with the evidence JonBenet ate pineapple sometime after arriving home Christmas evening? She had no explanation. "It just doesn't fit," she acknowledged.

Investigators also asked John Ramsey whether he had considered the possibility his daughter had died as the result of an accident. "How could it?" he asked. "The child was strangled. Her head was bashed in. That was not an accident."

In fact, however, the Ramseys have had personal experience with an accident involving Burke and JonBenet. In 1993, when Burke was 6 and his sister 3, Burke was swinging a club or bat one day when JonBenet walked up from behind him and disaster struck. JonBenet "got clobbered," John Ramsey told prosecutors. "It was a pure accident."

Patsy told investigators she remembers JonBenet's reaction. "She screamed bloody murder," Patsy said. JonBenet was rushed to a hospital. Mom was so concerned about whether JonBenet would ever completely heal that she says she took her daughter to a plastic surgeon. He told her the abrasion would eventually go away. It did. But the parents had learned that despite the best of intentions, accidents happen and people get seriously hurt.

Still another attractive feature of the accident/cover-up theory for prosecutors in a case in which the charges are based on the accusation that the parents covered up what happened to the daughter is that they could suggest that JonBenet had been sexually abused. This avenue would offer one way of explaining the sort of rage that might have led someone accidentally to delivering a blow to JonBenet's head serious enough to kill her.

Pathologists working with Boulder police say that JonBenet's vagina showed indications of long-term sexual abuse, according to Det. Thomas, citing "a panel of pediatric experts from around the country." He doesn't name them. He writes there were "no dissenting opinions among them."

"We gathered affidavits stating in clear language," he writes, "that there were injuries (to JonBenet's vagina) 'consistent with prior trauma and sexual abuse'....'There was chronic abuse'...'Past violation of the vagina'... 'Evidence of both acute injury and chronic sexual abuse.'"

"One expert summed it up well," Thomas writes, "when he said the injuries were not consistent with sexual assault but with a child who was being physically abused."

Apparently referring to the reports of the pathologists, Det. Haney told Patsy during the 1998 interview that police had "reliable medical information" that JonBenet had been sexually abused well prior to her death. Haney did not indicate how often JonBenet had been abused, but the conclusion of the medical experts that the abuse had occurred well prior to her death meant that if JonBenet had been murdered by an intruder, the intruder wasn't responsible for the sexual abuse, unless the intruder was someone who had also been alone with JonBenet on numerous occasions well before her death.

"That's one of the things that's been bothering us about this case," Haney said.

"No damned kidding," Patsy said.

"What does it tell you?

"It doesn't tell me anything! I'm...I don' just am shocked, is all I can say. And I don't...I don't know what to think. I mean I'm...I just wanna see where it says that."

The possibility that appropriate sexual boundaries were not being followed in the Ramsey household was something authorities considered in the aftermath of JonBenet's death. Boulder Detective Linda Arndt suggested in a 2000 deposition in connection with a suit she filed against the city that social services personnel considered more than the possibility that John Ramsey was sexually abusing his daughter. She said her opinions about the case had been dismissed by her law enforcement colleagues, as had the opinions of "all of the department of social services."

Question: Which opinions were these?

Answer: Incest, naming the Ramseys as suspects.

Q: This is incest between John Ramsey and JonBenet?

A: Yes, to the whole incest dynamic in the family.

Q: But involving John Ramsey and JonBenet, any other members?

A: Well, specifically because she's the one who's dead.

Q: But when you refer again to incest, it could involve any number of family members. I'm just trying to identify the family members when you use that term.

A: Well, there's a whole dynamic, because everybody's got a role in the family.

Q: The incest has an effect on family members, does it not?

A: Well, in general terms that covers it when you talk about an act, but I'm talking about the dynamic.

Q: I understand about the dynamic, but I want to get the predicate first. The participants in the incest, when you refer to incest, you're referring to John Ramsey and JonBenet and no other family members?

A: I refer to every member of the family. Every member has a role.

Q: But in terms of the sexual act that's implicit in the term of "incest," you're referring to John Ramsey and JonBenet?

A: Yes

Patsy was apparently concerned enough about some aspect of JonBenet or Burke's moral compass that she mentioned her concern to her father. He gave her the 1992 book Why Johnny Can't Tell Right From Wrong, she told police, in which then Boston College education professor William Kilpatrick argued that kids were morally adrift in part because "our present culture sends out confusing and misleading messages about sex." The result, he wrote, is that "when teens are confronted by adults over sexual misbehaviors, a frequent response is simply, "I didn't know it was wrong.'"

Kilpatrick didn't mention beauty pageants for 6-year-olds as part of the problem. He cited sex-education courses in which sex is taught as though there is no moral component. "The point (of these classes)," Kilpatrick wrote, "is to be able to view sex as a nonmoral, nonromantic recreational activity." That's a formula for trouble, Kilpatrick wrote, because it fuels a range of sex-related problems (adultery, diseases, neglected children). "Sooner or later," he argued, "sexual irresponsibility...become (s) everyone's problem."

Police did not ask Patsy during their interviews with her what had prompted her father to give her the book.

One particular form of sexual irresponsibility seems to have been on the mind of someone in the Ramsey household soon before or just after JonBenet was killed. Det. Thomas claims in his book that a police photograph taken in the Ramsey home the morning of the "kidnapping" shows that someone had opened a Webster's New World Dictionary, turned the pages to "i," and creased the page so that it pointed directly to the word "incest" ("sexual intercourse between persons too closely related to marry legally"). Investigators did not ask the Ramseys to explain this during their interviews with him.

The evidence indicating that JonBenet had been sexually abused well prior to her death enables prosecutors to suggest to jurors a two-pronged motive for cover-up: If JonBenet were the victim of inappropriate sexual behavior, disclosure of which would have threatened the chances that what remained of the family would have been allowed to stay together, that could have sparked the sort of rage that could have led to an accidental blow to the head serious enough to kill, an accident that would have generated questions about whether Burke should be allowed to stay in the home even absent inappropriate sexual behavior.

The final feature of the accident/cover-up theory that's helpful to prosecutors is that it allows them to leave unresolved the question of who caused JonBenet's head wound and why. This question is central in a murder case. In an accident/cover-up case it doesn't matter. It wouldn't matter if the blow to the head were delivered by a sibling jealous of the attention JonBenet was getting, angry about JonBenet bringing her soiled self into his bed (she had a bed-wetting problem), or enraged by his sister's declaration that she was going to tell their parents she was upset about his "playing doctor" with her privates, or by a distraught Mom or Dad angered by more bed-wetting, or by discovery of some instance of sibling rivalry run amok. Take your pick. Craft your own scenario. They're all variations of an accident.

It's not possible from the evidence to tell what happened.

It is possible to realize that from a legal standpoint, it doesn't matter. Under any variation, what happened wasn't murder because the only people in the house at the time she died had no reason to kill her or were too young to have the requisite intent. The evidence can be read to suggest one hypothesis of what happened that night: JonBenet's death was an accident the result of, at worst, negligence, a tragedy compounded by a deliberate and premeditated decision to cover-up, and hang on tight, together, all for one and one for all to protect what remained of the family.

If that's what happened, it was also a decision that made a personal tragedy a public tragedy that cost the taxpayers of Boulder County $1 million or more, fueled a media circus, forced the expenditure of untold blood, sweat and tears on the investigation of an accident, and diverted resources from, among other investigations, the search for the killer of Susannah Chase, who was bludgeoned to death in a Boulder alley a year after JonBenet was killed. Her case remains unsolved.

Prosecutor Michael Kane is among those who have concluded that JonBenet wasn't murdered. Kane was brought on board by Boulder D.A. Hunter in 1998 to prepare for the possibility of a grand jury inquiry. He was the lead prosecutor working with the grand jury into late 1999, when it was announced that the jury had concluded its work without issuing any indictments. And he was one of the prosecutors who interviewed the Ramseys a year later.

"I think it (JonBenet's death) was something (that came about) through an accident, and then everything else was staged — and the staging was so overdone," Kane said last year, according to the Globe. "Patsy is a very theatrical person and it was a very theatrical production." (Other media ignored Kane's comments, perhaps in part because the Globe is just a supermarket tabloid). Kane declined to comment for this article.

So, if D.A. Hunter's own lead prosecutor believes JonBenet died as the result of an accident and if the evidence he had suggested the Ramseys covered up the circumstances of their daughter's death, why didn't he file charges pertaining to concealing a death, false statements, and/or tampering with evidence charges?

Why Haven't Cover-up Charges Been Filed?

There's no indication in the public record that Boulder officials have even considered filing cover-up charges against the Ramseys.

Det. Thomas — who doesn't mention the possibility of filing cover-up charges in his book on the case — writes that prosecutors didn't feel up to the burden of prosecuting any case against the Ramseys, particularly not against the legal talent that would have been arrayed against them (the Ramseys had hired one of Colorado's foremost criminal defense firms). "Years of plea bargaining had made them paper tigers," Thomas charges, noting that under Hunter, Boulder prosecutors rarely took cases to trial because they favored plea bargains so strongly.

Filing cover-up charges would also have been an implicit admission that the investigation had failed to determine beyond a reasonable doubt how JonBenet died or who was responsible. There is no statute of limitations on murder, so perhaps Hunter felt the best prospect for justice was to wait until the evidence shows how JonBenet died and who was responsible. But short of a confession, the evidence will never establish that.

The most dismaying way to explain Hunter's failure to file false-statement and tampering-with-evidence charges against the Ramseys is that prosecutors don't like to file charges to solve mysteries. The legal system is a poor venue for truth seeking and prosecutors aren't trained to consider criminal charges as appropriate ways to solve mysteries. Their job is to prosecute lawbreakers. Cover-up charges are minor-league charges compared to murder charges. Hunter and his team may have been intent on bringing murder charges or none at all. "Just because she (Patsy) wrote the note doesn't mean we can prove a murder," Det. Thomas quotes one of Hunter's prosecutors as saying, as though that was the only possible charge.

The most intriguing possibility for the failure to file cover-up charges against the Ramseys is that prosecutors figured out — or were told by the Ramsey lawyers — soon after the killing that what had happened was the result of an accident, and that there was therefore no public interest to be served in prosecuting anyone. The Ramseys certainly don't represent a threat to anyone else, and what would be the point of punishing them for the cover-up when they'd lost a child they loved in an accident? If they covered up the circumstances of their daughter's death, their motive was selfish but hardly venal.

If JonBenet did, in fact, die as the result of an accident, as lead prosecutor Kane says he believes, maybe, despite the widespread hand wringing about the lack of criminal charges, the interests of justice have been served after all. Maybe John and Patsy Ramsey have been punished enough already.

Certainly there were times when prosecutors acted as though they felt that way. Hunter and his team bent over backwards to accommodate the interests and concerns of the Ramseys and their lawyers, according to numerous published accounts. They didn't quickly insist on in-depth interviews with the parents. They shared information from the police investigation with the Ramsey legal team. They hand-carried letters from Ramsey lawyers to investigators. They refused to convene a grand jury to compel testimony under penalty of perjury until 18 months after the killing, and then did so only under political pressure from then Colorado Gov. Roy Romer. And they didn't act on the requests of police investigators to obtain court-authorized subpoenas for the Ramsey's telephone and credit card records.

"The D.A.'s office stonewalled us," Det. Thomas complains.

The problem with the approach taken by prosecutors, even if motivated by the belief that JonBenet died as the result of an accident and that there was no point in prosecuting her parents for the cover-up, is that it has left police devoting extraordinary resources to chasing a phantom murderer, and the public grappling with the consequences of a mystery, still under the impression JonBenet was murdered, still nowhere near the truth, and not likely to get it — ever.

Why the New D.A. Isn't Up to the Job

Hunter's judgments about the case are no longer relevant because his term ended early 2001 when he chose not to run for re-election. Unfortunately, his successor doesn't show any more inclination to get to the bottom of the case than he did.

New D.A. Mary Keenan, who was an assistant D.A. under Hunter, didn't take any publicly known action on the case until nearly two years into her term, and then she did so only after receiving a letter from Ramsey attorney Wood informing her, according to press reports, that the Ramseys were considering suing Boulder unless they were exonerated.

Keenan didn't tell Boulder residents of her decision to take an active role in the case, but she did tell Ramsey attorney Wood. In a letter to him, she said the Boulder police investigation of the Ramseys had been "exhaustive and thorough," that she would proceed without any further investigation by police, using her department's own investigators, that she would focus on new leads or leads not previously investigated, that she would work "cooperatively" with retired detective Smit who is the prime advocate of the intruder theory, that she would make "every effort to communicate openly with you," and that she would not go to the press to publicize her decision.

She was acting, she wrote, because a "violent child murderer is at large."

Ramsey attorney Wood was delighted. His clients "are out from the umbrella of suspicion," he declared.

Keenan is either unaware of the evidence that gives prosecutors reason to believe that the Ramseys perpetrated a cover-up, or she has decided not to act on it. And she seems oblivious to the indications that JonBenet wasn't murdered and that there was no intruder.

Indeed, with her comment that there is "a violent child murderer at large," Keenan endorsed the Ramseys' theory of the case and absolved them of responsibility for what happened to their daughter, ignoring the police conclusion that there is a "probability" the Ramseys were involved in the death of their daughter.

Keenan also aligned herself with the Ramseys when earlier this month she described the ruling of the judge who tossed out the defamation suit against the Ramseys last month as "thoughtful and well reasoned," even though she knew the judge didn't have access to the evidence in police files. Keenan didn't respond to a request for comment for this article.

More importantly, even if Keenan wanted to solve the case without pussyfooting with the Ramseys, she is ill-equipped to do so. The D.A.'s staff has only two investigators, neither of whom is trained to do a homicide investigation, former Boulder assistant D.A. Bill Wise told the Rocky Mountain News in February. Keenan has cut herself off from the investigative resources she needs to pursue the case.

Prosecutor Kane says Keenan was among the members of Hunter's team who believe JonBenet had been killed by an intruder. He says Keenan's letter to the Ramseys was inappropriate. "I don't think that as a district attorney you send a letter to someone who is still under suspicion, basically saying to them that we're going to look elsewhere," he complained in December on a cable TV show.

All this makes Keenan ill-equipped to carry the case forward. But the biggest reason she's the wrong person to do so is that if John and Patsy Ramsey covered up the circumstances of their daughter's death, they won't drop their cover-up and tell what happened unless they're faced with prosecutors determined to throw them in prison for as many years as possible, or at least prepared to act like they are.

Colorado Gov. Bill Owens can intervene and call for the appointment of a special prosecutor. Each of his predecessors has ordered probes by the state attorney general's office in cases in which local D.A.s either couldn't be trusted or had decided not to act. In 1976, then Gov. Richard Lamm ordered the state attorney general to look into allegations of public corruption in two counties. Seven public officials were charged and convicted as a result. In 1998, then Gov. Roy Romer intervened after a local D.A. declined to prosecute in a sex-abuse case. A special prosecutor subsequently convicted three people.

In the Ramsey case, the political downside for Owens if he were to intervene are minimal. Keenan would be furious and he'd ruffle some feathers among Boulder County officials, most of whom are Democrats anyway (Owens is a Republican), and most of whom desperately want the Ramsey to go away for fear the city will get more bad publicity. Conversely, the political upside for Owens is high. Owens would win national attention, he would win kudos for leadership, and either the prosecutor he appointed would break the case open, in which case Owens would rightfully bask in the limelight, or Owens would win points for at least getting the case into the hands of someone who could make one final, objective assessment about whether there is evidence to support charges, and if so which ones against whom.

There is, as it happens, a Denver area D.A. well positioned to take over the case. One of Denver D.A. Bill Ritter's assistant D.A.s spent nearly two years working on the case with Hunter and Kane. In addition Ritter has a stable of homicide investigators, one of whom is Det. Tom Haney, the same detective who interviewed Patsy Ramsey in 1998. Haney worked the case over the course of nearly two years while on loan to Boulder police and is familiar with all in the evidence in the case through 1998 when he played a key role during a formal presentation of the evidence to D.A. Hunter and a team of experts. Ritter would not have to start from the beginning if he had the case. And he's even a Democrat, which would insulate Owens against charges he's motivated by considerations of partisanship.

Gov. Owens has a mixed record on matters involving judicial investigations. He botched a review of the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School by refusing to give subpoena power to the panel he named to probe the disaster, and by naming a panel that declared from the outset that it wasn't going to evaluate the actions of law enforcement in responding to the disaster, even though that was precisely the question that needed the most scrutiny.

But Owens has shown a willingness to put some PR heat on the Ramseys. In 1999 he told them to "quit hiding" behind their hired help and "come back to Colorado and work with us to find the killers." He declined to name a special prosecutor at that time, but that was in part because he said there was "substantial new evidence" that was just then being analyzed.

That was more than three years ago now. Whatever hope Owens had at the time that the new evidence would result in charges has been dashed. As a politician, Owens has ostensibly more of an interest in getting at the truth of what happened to JonBenet than prosecutors. But first someone would have to tell him to take another look at the case. There's no indication it's on his radar screen. He hasn't spoken publicly on it since his 1999 comments.

Unfortunately, there's not much time for Owens to act. The statute of limitation on the misdemeanor charges the Ramseys could be charged with is 18 months. Under Colorado law the "ticking of the clock" stopped once the Ramseys left Colorado in mid-1997, but resumed after 5 years, or in mid 2002. That means that prosecutors have until June 26 of this year to file the misdemeanor charges or forever pass on that option.

They have until the end of 2005 to file tampering with evidence charges. But the chances of securing a deal resolving the case increase the more leverage prosecutors have over the Ramseys.

And the most likely way the case is going to be solved is with a deal.

The Deal to Solve the Mystery

There are four components to one possible deal.

First, assuming that the fiber evidence shows what prosecutors privately claimed it shows, that the other evidence cited by Det. Thomas and available from other sources stands up to scrutiny, and that a special prosecutor reviewing the evidence finds it is sufficient to support cover-up charges, John and Patsy Ramsey, in order to avoid a trial, would need to plead guilty to a felony count of tampering with evidence. If the prosecutor has sufficient evidence to charge the Ramseys with a felony and multiple misdemeanor "false statement" counts, that would give the prosecutor considerable leverage. Just three misdemeanor and a felony charges would mean the Ramseys would face several years in prison if convicted. The prosecutor could also dangle a willingness to recommend light sentences.

Second, the prosecutor could insist that the Ramseys compensate Boulder County for the resources its officials diverted into trying to unravel their cover-up. The Ramseys would be amenable to such a payment if the amount the prosecutor seeks is less than what the Ramseys' attorneys and experts would charge them to defend them against criminal charges.

Third, and most importantly, the prosecutor would need to get the most elusive prize of all: the truth. John and Patsy should be required to drop the cover-up, and explain what they know about what happened — all of what they know — under oath and penalty of perjury, with the transcript of their testimony put into the public record.

Why would the Ramseys be willing to drop the cover-up after sticking to it the past six years? They would, of course, be tempted by the prospect of avoiding a trial on felony charges and, if they're convicted, spending years in prison. But the key to get them to talk is to give them the one thing they crave as much as the public craves the truth: the assurance their family (what's left of it) will not be ripped apart, no matter the truth.

Here's one way to cinch the deal: Allow the Ramseys to keep within the family the secret of what caused the accident that resulted in their daughter's death, as long as they acknowledge the cover-up. The whole truth would be better. A big chunk of the truth would be better than what we are stuck with today: an eternal mystery, the lingering suspicion there's a child murderer on the loose, and an investigation that's going nowhere.

So a deal that is there to be made — a deal that would resolve the case — is this: a guilty plea by each parent to a felony count of evidence tampering, a recommendation for leniency, and the truth of what happened that night (or as much of it as prosecutors can get), in return for no or short prison terms and the right to keep what's left of the family together -- no matter what happened that night.

The circus surrounding the death of the 6-year-old beauty queen could then be taken down, and Boulder authorities could redirect their law enforcement resources in more appropriate ways. D.A. Keenan could start, for example, by asking Police Chief Beckner if there's anything she can do to help find the killer of Susannah Chase, the woman bludgeoned to death a year after JonBenet.

In that case, there's a murder to be solved.


Editor's Note: If you want to encourage Colorado Gov. Owens to appoint a special prosecutor to get to the bottom of the mystery of JonBenet's killing, call 303-866-2471 or email him here: To sign a petition requesting that the governor appoint a special prosecutor, click here.

Ryan Ross is a legal affairs writer based in Denver. He has been published in the Washington Post, the National Law Journal, the ABA Journal and Legal Times, among other publications, and has twice appeared as an expert on "Nightline."  He can be reached by email at

Additional Reading:

Updated: The Murder of JonBenet Ramsey by J.J. Maloney and J. Patrick O'Connor. (Updated 08/19/06)
Astoundingly, this highest of high-profile murder case goes unsolved. It will most probably remain so despite the sensational arrest in Bangkok of a 41-year-old child-sex-offender who claimed to be with JonBenet when she died. John Mark Karr's arrest will demonstrate anew how inept JonBenet's investigation has been from the beginning.

Click here to view the autopsy report and other documents related to the JonBenet Ramsey case.

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