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The Mystery of JonBenét Ramsey

JonBenét is our generation’s Lindbergh baby.”

—unidentified curator, Colorado Historical Society1

The study of criminology has by no means made me a cynic; it has encouraged my admiration for the ingenuity of the race.”

—William Roughead,Chronicles of Murder


The profound and disturbing disequilibrium provoked by the commission of a crime demands a response, if the fabric of society is not to be rent. What we mean by revenge is private justice, committed when public justice is unavailable or untrustworthy, as terrorism is the response of seemingly desperate, despairing persons for whom the more orderly procedures of politics are unavailable or untrustworthy.

In the category of nonfiction known as “true crime,” most of the crimes investigated are murders, and most of the murders have been solved. Disequilibrium has been quelled by the knowledge that the criminal has been identified, apprehended, usually tried and convicted and imprisoned; in eras not too removed from ours, most murderers were summarily executed. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth is the most primitive formula for justice and possibly the most psychologically satisfying, however inhumane and “uncivilized.” The Greeks recognized the power and authority of blood lust and the appetite for revenge; Athena doesn’t banish the Furies, but assimilates them into the new, more rational (yet perhaps in terms of punishment no less bloody) system of justice.

Accounts of true crime have always been enormously popular among readers. The subgenre would seem to appeal to the highly educated as well as the barely educated, to women and men equally. The most famous chronicler of true crime trials in English history is the amateur criminologist William Roughead, a Scots lawyer who between 1889 and 1949 attended every murder trial of significance held in the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh, and wrote of them in essays published first in such journals as The Juridical Review and subsequently collected in best-selling books with such titles as Malice Domestic, The Evil That Men Do, What Is Your Verdict?, In Queer Street, Rogues Walk Here, Knave’s Looking Glass, Mainly Murder, Murder and More Murder, Nothing But Murder, and many more.2

Roughead, much admired by Henry James, wrote in a style that combined intelligence, witty skepticism, and a flair for old-fashioned storytelling and moralizing; his accounts of murder cases and trials have the advantage of being concise and pointed, like folk tales. “The Rattenbury Tragedy” begins,

Sometimes—just sometimes—cupid’s dart, departing from the romantically assigned rôle of the poet’s gentle image, is metamorphosed into an arrow, a barbed and lethal thing. More than half-a-century ago now, the target of one such bowstring’s cruel deceiver was a little white house nestling amid pines within soothing sound of the murmurous sea.

At times, Roughead displays a startling Borgesian flair, as in the opening of “Dr. William Smith of St. Fergus”:

Crime, like history, tends to repeat itself, and the genuine innovator may, quite unfairly, find himself designated imitator. Thus, in the St. Fergus affair of 1853, it is possible to see a curious foreshadowing of the Ardlamont mystery of 1893, which must not, however, be held to denigrate the achievement of Mr. Monson.

Roughead’s chronicles often end with blunt and unsentimental summaries, for this veteran of the court was a firm believer in capital punishment: “His crime earned him a total of $20 and a pair of severely blistered hands. It cost him—his neck.” And, “[Laurie] was removed by that capi-tal sentence under which we all lie deferred and from which there is no reprieve.” And, “On June 12, 1906, Tucker was baptised. He was then executed.” Roughead, political conservative, genteel ironist, an unabashed connoisseur of the most brutal crimes, took for granted that justice was being meted out in such punishments. These were just-so stories for adults, cautionary tales with the unflagging folk moral An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

Roughead’s influence was enormous, and since his time “true crime” has become a crowded, flourishing field, though few writers of distinction have been drawn to it. To write of true crime is to acknowledge one’s subject of more significance than one’s style in appropriating it, a difficult concession for the literary writer. Notable exceptions are Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, whose “nonfiction novels” In Cold Blood (1965) and The Executioner’s Song (1979) imaginatively, and in the view of some critics unconscionably, blur the conventional categories of fiction and nonfiction. Yet In Cold Blood has emerged as Capote’s strongest work of prose, the sole novel of his that has exerted an influence on other writers, and The Executioner’s Song, modeled upon Capote but going beyond Capote in its range and variety, may well be Mailer’s most enduring novel. Perhaps in the fact-obsessed late twentieth century, the most palatable fictions are those that aren’t really fictional but rather “facts” audaciously reinvented in the language of gifted writers. For what is “reality” except as it is presented through language? Both nonfiction novels are notable for the relative plainness and directness of their American-vernacular prose, and both are based upon crimes of a certain symbolic magnitude. The Executioner’s Song, especially, at over one thousand large pages might lay claim to being an exhaustive treatment of its subject.

Our apparent fascination with crime and its aftermath, including meticulously recorded trials like that of O.J. Simpson, mirror our collective anxiety about the possibility of the very definition of justice, let alone its realization. Where in the past the “solution” of a crime by police, the detection, identification, and arrest of a suspect, seemed to bring a natural closure to mystery, as in the entertaining fantasies of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales, in our time these steps are but preliminary to the true drama, which will usually take place in a courtroom. Until a jury announces its verdict, and this verdict as much the result of bias, whim, ignorance, or a runaway contempt for the very process of legal proceedings as of reasoned and objective deliberation, there is no closure; there is no “justice”; actual guilt and innocence have become irrelevant, as the focus of dramatic attention shifts from the defendant/criminal onto his prosecutors and, especially if he’s rich and notorious, his defense attorneys.

Lawrence Schiller’s lengthy American Tragedy (1996) does not consider the probable or even possible guilt of Simpson in the vicious slashing murders of his ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend Ronald Goldman, focusing instead upon the “dream team” defensive strategy for countering the prosecution’s case; reading American Tragedy, one might be lulled into thinking that the murders were simply events that happened as in a fairy tale, or like weather, executed by no one “provable,” and thus by no one. Portrayed solely “through the eyes and ears of third parties,” Simpson floats curiously free of any moral condemnation. Simpson is a celebrity, he is celebrated. Simpson’s high worth is, simply, that he is. When he’s acquitted of his crimes by an apparently biased jury, no effort is made in American Tragedy to determine whether this verdict is “just”; only in passing does Schiller remark that one of the jurors was a former Black Panther, and that after the reading of the verdict by the jury foreman this black man gave a Black Power salute to Simpson. To speculate on what this might mean would be to assume that it means something, but Schiller won’t deal with “meaning.” And what has “meaning” to do with technicalities of law?

The notorious case of the murder of six-year-old child beauty-pageant winner JonBenét Ramsey in Boulder, Colorado, on the night of Christmas 1996, a case that Sherlock Holmes would have “solved” in a few sec-onds’ ratiocination (“No footprints in the snow around the house? No forced entry? A staged kidnapping, ransom note seemingly written by the mother?”), so ineptly investigated by police that no arrests have been made in over two years, is uniquely of our time: a murder mystery which many of the writers under review suggest could be solved is nonetheless stalled, perhaps sabotaged, by a police department and a district attorney’s office not only inexperienced at handling homicide cases3 but intimidated by the wealth of their primary suspects, the parents of the murdered child, and by their high-powered legal team. In his ironically titled Perfect Murder, Perfect Town Lawrence Schiller quotes the distinguished former Los Angeles prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi on the legal conundrum of the case, given the meager amount of hard evidence the Boulder city police department has been able to amass:

The strongest evidence against the Ramseys in this case is nothing that directly implicates them. [It is] the implausibility that anyone else committed [the murder]. But paradoxically, the strongest evidence…, by its very nature, is the weakest evidence against the Ramseys…. If we come to the conclusion that JonBenét was not murdered by an intruder, the inevitable question presents itself: which [parent] did it? A prosecutor can’t argue to a jury, “Ladies and gentlemen, the evidence is very clear here that either Mr. or Mrs. Ramsey committed this murder and the other one covered it up…” There is no case to take to the jury unless [the DA] could prove beyond reasonable doubt which one…did it…. Even if you could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Patsy Ramsey wrote the ransom note, that doesn’t mean she committed the murder.

Schiller summarizes a Denver district attorney’s position: “Until investigators could identify each parent’s individual actions, two suspects meant no suspects.” In other words, the law can shield a suspected murderer or murderers in certain circumstances.

In their joint effort Who Killed JonBenét Ramsey? the forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht and the journalist Charles Bosworth come to a similar conclusion. Given the impenetrable legal wall that has shielded the Ramseys, the case came to seem to the “inexperienced” DA Alex Hunter (in fact, a twenty-five-year veteran) unwinnable; and since in his professional vanity Hunter wanted to file only a case he was certain of winning, he vacillated for months, poisoning the working relations between his office and the Boulder homicide detectives, and further weakening the investigation.

From the first, the Ramseys’ wealth and prestige set them apart from ordinary police scrutiny; their alliance with well-known Boulder attorneys who were associates and friends of Alex Hunter’s further strengthened their position. As Wecht and Bosworth write, “The case would have been entirely different if the victim was a girl from a poor or even middle-class home.” The subtext of the JonBenét Ramsey case is class and privilege in America vis-à-vis “justice.” Carlton Smith in Death of a Little Princess concludes:

Where have the authorities gone wrong? The grim answers are in the evident lack of police training and experience that allowed so many errors on the critical first day; in the egos of the participants, which came to occupy more and more of the battle to control the investigation as the publicity intensified; and the worst: the clear fact that there are two kinds of police procedures in America, one for the rich and another for the poor…. The parents of any young child found dead under the same circumstances almost certainly would have been interrogated at once, in depth and separately, when the event was still horrific enough to have produced spontaneous answers. That did not happen in Boulder, and was why the investigation entered a state of seemingly interminable drift. It was a betrayal of our expectations about justice.

  1. 1

    Quoted in Crimes of the Century: From Leopold and Loeb to O.J. Simpson by Gilbert Geis and Leigh B. Bienen (Northeastern University Press, 1998), p. 4.

  2. 2

    See William Roughead’s Chronicles of Murder, edited by Richard Whittington-Egan (Moffat, Scotland: Lochar, 1991).

  3. 3

    Commander of the Boulder city police detective division John Eller designated the Ramseys an “influential family” on the first day of the investigation and ordered that they be treated as victims, not suspects. He would summarily dismiss more experienced FBI agents from the case and refused to call in Denver and Colorado state police. The extraordinary ransom note, which investigators subsequently identified as bogus, Eller described as a “typical” ransom note. The murder of JonBenét Ramsey was the sole homicide in Boulder in 1996. District Attorney Alex Hunter was known for his avoidance of trials; his office relied upon plea bargaining, which depends upon a defendant’s cooperation and confession.

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