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Prologue - 

In late 2006 Professor Michael Murray, of the University of Illinois, asked me to contribute a chapter for a book he is editing on crime and the media. It would be an account of a curious, singular event I happened to get caught up in, an event that in a sense began in 1997, but took an unfortunate turn in 2006. Writing it, he suggested, might even be therapeutic. He was correct. But as I started to write it almost inevitably grew, moving in various directions, as the narrative which I initially wrote raised questions that begged explanation.

The account of the “event” is told in narrative form. The essay then shifts direction, to engage what is to this mind’s eye, more substantive issues that not only do I want to raise but which I take be of considerably greater importance than the dark dance that occupied my life for a miserable, harmful year, indeed ten years. Inevitably, then, the style changes, or evolves, from a narrative of unfolding events to an examination of larger social and cultural issues, reflecting my long held belief that the only reason to examine, pick apart, the particular is better to understand the general. Blake put it best in his admonition : “..to see the world in a grain of sand, to hold infinity in the palm of your hand.” In this case the particular was the murder, on Christmas night 1996, of JonBenet Ramsey and the August 2006 arrest of a person claiming to have killed her “accidentally.” The general is the meaning of the national, indeed global, reaction to these two events.

This was not, however, an act of scholarly whimsy, of knowingly using an account of dreadful tragedy as a tool to go where I “really” wanted to go. It was, in truth, a deeply personal experience out of which, by happenstance, I was able to think through other questions which I have long pondered and never quite resolved, issues of the nature of our culture, a condition defined not just by the stuff of its content, or of how it comes to be what it is, but also by what one might call its mood, its psychology and morality, its texture if you will. Perhaps, within all of this, what I really wanted to get to grips with was something I have long detected, and been massively disappointed by, the sense that there is within the public mind and heart, within the societal corpus, an anger that seeks the balm of calm through occasional explosive, emotional fury, a fury which is, by the way, ever so open to manipulation – as we have seen of late.

The need to engage with these questions of the condition of American culture and the role of the media in defining that condition comes naturally. I am at one level simply intellectually curious about the world around me, always have been, and for that I make no apology. There was, however, I understand and will admit, another purpose , another need to know the forces forming and, to my way of thinking, distorting, this society, drawn from the well of my childhood.
295 Shaw Road
A few miles from where I was born, in the English working class community of Oldham, an old cotton spinning town that went into steep decline in the early 1950s and which has been trying to climb out of the pit of industrial failure ever since, is Moston Cemetery. My father is buried there. I was 4 years old, he was thirty one when he died. He was in the Royal Air Force and burnt to death when his plane smashed into the side of a Welsh mountain. I have a feeling that he didn’t want to be in the RAF but it was 1952, he was working class, the prospects outside weren’t great. He chose to stay in the service, he died and I never knew him. I have no memory, no picture gallery of the mind to occasionally roam through. He was too young to die and I was too young to have been deprived of his presence. Never a day has passed, nary a moment when I don’ t think of him. I miss him desperately, and I’m old enough now to understand and, more importantly, to acknowledge that his loss impacted, scarred, my whole life. It was unfair, just as the loss of the young always seems so unfair, like acid poured into an open, never to be closed, festering wound. Such loss is unfair, and we lash out against it because it offends against a core thesis of our world, that death is not for the young.

After his death my mother and I moved in with my grandparents. They were kind and I loved them very much. The physical circumstances were, however, to say the least meager. 295 Shaw Road was a 19th century terraced house, what would be called a row house here, built by cotton factory owners to house the workforce. It had been condemned many years before I was born but still stood there, a defiant reminder of an age long gone except in the hearts and minds and moods of those who lived within its cramped, damp space. It was what we called “2 up, 2 down,’ that is, 2 bedrooms upstairs, a downstairs living room and a kitchen. There was only running cold water, a coal fire and an outside toilet. I lived there, sharing a room with my mother until I was 14 when the local authority re-housed us in a council “flat,” what here would be called public housing. At least this had an inside toilet and, oh wonder of wonders, central heating – we had of course been moved because my mother had convinced the powers that be that it wasn’t quite seemly for a teenage boy to be sharing a room with his mother ( thank God for puberty.)

One thing I came to understand at an early age is that the English working class don’t handle death well, and in some senses they are not all that great at handling life. I’ve been away a long time now and maybe today it is different, maybe. What I recall, however, is a world, a culture that was in considerable part, traumatized by its circumstance. It was also a world, one that could never go inside and engage the pain. The idea of therapy, of talking about feelings and hurts was unthinkable except when fueled by alcohol at which moments the emotional engagement either translated itself into a certain maudlin, self-pity or violence in a curious ritual in which one way to deal with pain was to inflict it. To my young eye none of this was necessarily apparent since life seemed fine ( black dog, who would later emerge snarling, was still a puppy.) On the surface life was lived with a kind of jolly chirpiness, a mood that spoke that all was well, life is basically OK, when in fact it wasn’t. I remember whenever I walked with my mother to the local store, or around the town centre’s outdoor market, and we passed someone with whom she was familiar, they would say to each other, with a quick smile, “hiya,” the local version of hello and then very quickly move on, no conversation other than perhaps a piece of gossip or “how’s yer mum?” For a long time I assumed that the greeting and the smile were real. They weren’t, more often than not they were milquetoast artifice behind which lurked something far less cheery, a dark misery. There was humour, buckets of it, but it was I think similar to what someone once said of Graham Greene’s novel, Travels With My Aunt, “laughter in the shadow of the gallows.” The fact is that the English working class, no less than the English middle class, if for different reasons, knew when they listened to their inner voice, that they were sad, disappointed, incomplete, frustrated.

And then there was death. They bury it in the darker recesses of the mind where demons lurk, they don’t talk about it, pretend that there is no need to grieve, that somehow grief is actually a sign of weakness, unless it is the orchestrated, sad, even bizarre spectacle of public grief, as happened with Diana in 1997. It is a sad, but perhaps necessary consequence of the felt need to just “get by,” to survive in a hostile world that is designed for and by their “betters.”

There were no photos of my father in the house, not one. I once found some letters of his but they quickly and inevitably disappeared. No one ever spoke of him, mentioned his name, reminisced about him, told the stories that I was so desperate to hear, as is any child who has lost the other most important person in their life. There was one exception, when a family friend said “you have his eyes,” at which point I blushed and changed the subject. It was as if he never existed, except of course in my heart. The silence was so intense that it was impossible for me to even ask those simple, but vital questions: what was he like; was he funny; did he like soccer or cricket; did he love me?

I remember my first day at Cardinal Langley Grammar School, an all boys school run by a religious teaching order. In one class, taught by Brother Leonard, he asked us what our fathers did – not, note, our mothers (mine was a shop assistant.) I heard the boys say “he’s a teacher,” “a solicitor (lawyer),” “he owns a shop,” “he works in a factory.” The brutal question slowly snaked towards me, from the front of the class to the back where I was sitting. I was terrified, what would I say, what could I say – I knew what I couldn’t say, the truth. I lied. I said he was a “dustman,” a trash collector. Looking back it was an interesting choice in that if I was going to give him a job it wasn’t going to be glamorous. I simply didn’t have the emotional strength to say that he was dead, that he had died serving his country, that I was proud of him, loved him very much and missed him dreadfully, even if I hadn’t a clue as to who he was. What a wretched moment, one that I’ve regretted ever since. Of course the silence about him could not last, and one day my mother asked me what I wanted to know? I was 50 years old. I think she sensed my rage at what they had done, but I simply replied, “It’s OK, it’s too late.” I did ask her one question that had plagued me, “did I go to his funeral…?” Of course, I knew the answer to that one.

It was during these years on Shaw Road that two things happened that, along with his death and the screaming silence, came to define my whole life, and laid the ground work for the events of 2006, indeed the past ten years. My grandfather was a leading local politician and every Friday night his political pals would come to the house and talk politics. I would sit on the floor and simply listen. I was entranced, and there was born my love of language and my fascination for all things political. Then when I was about 13 I was browsing in a book store and picked up a copy of Theodore White’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Making of the President 1960. Each week my mother would give me my “odd money,” what here would be called an allowance. It was tiny, but each week I would go to this small bookstore and spend two or three hours deciding which book to buy. I stood there in the bookstore ( I have always loved the smell of books), opened White’s book and read its famous first words, “It was invisible, as always…”

The “it” was the unfolding majesty of the electoral process, as the first votes are counted in the far eastern corner of America and then slowly, surely moves like the sun from east to west as the leader of the free world is chosen by the ordinary, but decent, folks of this most free of lands. If I might engage in a cliché, I couldn’t put it down. Here was the proffering of a dream to a young boy so desperately in need of a dream. I fell in love with the idea of America, with its politics, its institutions, its peoples and most of all its glorious possibility. I drank in White’s wonderfully mad, idealized narrative of the process, and in particular I fell in love with the iconic figure of JFK – the first of many iconic father figures I would come to adore and respect and learn from.

I started to read everything that I could get my hands on, books, newspapers, magazines. I subscribed to the London Times and would clip every article about the United States, a land that I “knew” in my youthful heart was truly blessed, that shining city on the hill. I became a huge fan of the Times’ then Washington correspondent, Louis Harris. I would do crazy things like writing to the Port Authority of New York and the Schenectady Chamber of Commerce for anything they could send me. The packages would duly arrive, and I couldn’t wait to open them and devour the latest information on a new industrial plant in Schenectady or Buffalo or…name a place, or the tonnage of shipping passing through the waters off New York City.

Ah, bliss was it in that dawn to be alive and to be young, even in Oldham. I could recite JFK’s inaugural, detail the stories in his Profiles in Courage, tell you about the Constitution, explain the reason for being in Vietnam even before Vietnam was a major blip on the global radar. I “knew” that JFK was a good and great martyr, that LBJ while gruff was designing the Great Society of which, by the time I was 15, I definitely wanted a piece. In the eyes of a sad child “America” was quite simply heaven on earth. And then I came to live here and that’s where it started to go wrong.
A Troubled Place
I have no regrets about my childhood naivete, which has never quite left me, because if a child can’t dream, who can? It was not, however, as I would have wished it to be. It disappointed as I realized that like few societies on earth America promises people Heaven, and gives them Hell, and then for good measure gives other parts of the planet a good kicking. In his 2005 Nobel lecture, the English playwright, Harold Pinter, savaged what America had become and done, particularly in its foreign policy and its almost fetish-like desire to cuddle up to this and that authoritarian regime that had perfected the fine art of ripping peoples’ fingernails out – if they were lucky.

He noted, however, that the United States was particularly adept at masking all of this – just as it had with the boy from Oldham. Standing in the Stockholm Konserthus he observed that whatever the miseries inflicted, in the public eye,

“…It never happened. Nothing ever happened. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite classical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis. I put it to you that the United States is without doubt the greatest show on the road. Brutal, indifferent, scornful and ruthless it may be but it is also very clever. As a salesman it is out on its own and its most salable commodity is self love. It’s a winner. Listen to all American presidents on television say the words ‘the American people’…It’s a scintillating stratagem. Language is actually employed to keep thought at bay. The words ‘the American people’ provide a truly voluptuous cushion of reassurance. You don’t need to think. Just lie back on the cushion. The cushion may be suffocating your intelligence and your critical faculties but it’s very comfortable.”

What Pinter said resonated. His critique was twofold: of the dreadful actions of the political class in foreign affairs and of the witless compliance of “ordinary” Americans. It was this latter that particularly concerned me because while I was troubled by what the United States was doing to the rest of the world I was equally troubled by what it was doing to itself. I wanted, somehow, on however small a scale, to do something, to say something about what I saw as a miserable, wretched but fundamentally unnecessary condition. The Fell upon which I had long walked was that of culture, particularly as expressed through, and by, the media.

For many years as I observed I became ever more troubled, arriving at a conclusion that I wished would go away, but which lurked with an ever greater and chilling presence. I had come to see the dragging down of the idea that cultural expression could serve larger purposes, could be imbued with the spell of wisdom and profundity, could work from the premise that there was something ultimately good, indeed great, about who we are, who we can be, who we should be. I had come to feel a growing belief that there was no longer any meaning to the old aphorism that, for example, broadcasting at its best made the good popular and the popular good. I come to agree with Newt Minnow who, forty years on, revisited his famous claim from the early 1960s that television was a vast wasteland, declared that it was a vaster wasteland still. OJ was happening, along with a growing trend of reality television, that bitter broth of voyeurism and public humiliation – Cowper’s “Detested sport/That owes its pleasures to another’s pain.” I had this unshakable sense, a long time in the making, that mass culture was evolving in ways that shoved aside things of worth and merit in favor of too much vacuous, juvenile, even primitive “pleasures,” egged on all the while by ever larger corporations.

The larger body politic also seemed driven more by the will to power than the will to serve, a metastasizing lack of grace. When he was dying of a brain tumor, Lee Atwater, who had been the wunderkind who had masterminded the election of the first President Bush and who all but single handedly invented modern-day, dirty politics, had a profound epiphany. He wrote:

“What was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood…I don’t know who will lead us through the 90s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, the tumor of the soul…”

It was as if the culture and its institutions, its governance as much as its education system, had failed and left vast numbers of people ill-equipped for the hard work of citizenship, a population that was bored, too readily drawn to simple pleasures, ignorant of the world around, drawn ever more to absurd beliefs and world views. In other words, I had arrived at a place I didn’t want to be, a troubled place. Perhaps it was all inevitable.

On such a broad landscape it may seem curious to admit, but when JonBenet died and the media frenzy began, and the public clamoured for ever more information, and sought retribution against her “ghastly parents,” here, for me, was an opportunity to say something about what was a deeply troubled land, to say that this is not how it is supposed to be, this is not how the media should function in a democracy, this democracy, this is not how justice should be pursued, it’s wrong. I wanted to do this because I could not, do not want to, shake that feeling of calm and warmth and, finally, finding a future, a place to love not just live in, a place in which to belong, not just be in that I felt as I stood there in that bookstore, opened the pages of the book and read those words, “It was invisible, as always…”
JonBenet, pt. 1: the establishment of a narrative

On August 16 2006 MSNBC broke the story that an arrest had been made in the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, a pretty 6 year old girl, winner of several beauty pageants, who had been garroted and bludgeoned to death on Christmas night 1996 in Boulder, Colorado. Through 1997 the case became the biggest story of any kind in the United States, until another princess died on August 31 in a Paris tunnel. The story was fueled by the wealth of her parents, the brutality of the assault, its savage cruelty, even if in the annals of mayhem and murder in the Republic, in the long list of slaughtered innocents, JonBenet’s death was not especially exceptional.

What really got the collective pulse beating feverishly were videos of JonBenet taking part in child pageants, dressed and acting in ways that many saw as a sexualized child prancing around in a suggestive manner, an alluring, pouting, posing Lolita, a pedophile’s dream. I understand that there was for many people something, shall we say, curious about the images but to go from that to the argument that she was being sexually abused by her parents, which would emerge as one of the strongest narratives in the media story was, to my way of thinking, a real stretch. That, however, she might have caught the eye of sexual sadist seems highly plausible, someone who would lust for her, not rest until he had her.

As the years passed and no arrest was made, and a grand jury in October 1999 failed to hand down an indictment, the story slowly slipped from the headlines and the public imagination, a chill set in, it became a cold case. When news emerged of the arrest in Bangkok, following an investigation involving the Boulder DA’s office, the FBI, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, British Intelligence, and the Royal Thai Police, within hours hundreds of reporters, camera crews, producers, not just from the United States but from all over the world, were flocking to Boulder. The case of JonBenet had gone from cold to hot in barely a heartbeat.

I happen to know something of this since I was the one who, for four years, had been receiving emails from the man arrested, and it was his confessions in this long exchange of emails and phone conversations that he was responsible for the death of JonBenet, that led to the intense, international investigation. I found myself in the middle of an extraordinary, even hysterical, media firestorm as well as a truly bizarre sequence of events. It was a curious place for a media scholar to be, and it felt at times like having a berth on the Titanic. It provided, however, a fascinating position to think through again some basic questions: how did it all come to be; what did the renewed explosion of interest say about the nature of contemporary media and the cultures that they serve; issues of ethics with which I was confronted; and the most profound question of all, “why are they all here?
“…the miscarriage of American civilization”
The story begins ten years earlier when I had an idea, to make a documentary about the way in which the media had dealt with the murder of JonBenet. I floated the idea with a friend of mine, David Mills, an extremely experienced, London based film maker. The reasons for wanting to do this were both simple and complex, but primarily birthed by those concerns and feelings I expressed in the Prologue. It seemed obvious to me that there was a serious problem with the manner of the coverage: it was both overdone and unfair. Overdone in that there was so much of it, unfair because from the get-go any presumption of innocence was denied JonBenet’s parents, John and Patsy Ramsey. It also troubled me greatly that so many in the public seemed so willing, so needing, to believe what they read and heard. In other words, the story was a profound and troubling metaphor for everything that was going wrong with American journalism and, in a sense, the larger culture. I was reminded of Freud’s comment about “the miscarriage of American civilization,” by which he meant the disconnect between the lofty 18th century ideals upon which the Republic had been founded, and the sorry condition he observed in the 20th century.

My initial fascination was with the manner in which the story of her death was told in the media, the sheer vastness and luridness of the coverage by mainstream and tabloid media alike. What became clear was that the story was a narrative within which were certain themes, suggestions, declamations, a nudge here, a wink there. “Clues” and “conclusions” were thrown about like confetti at an Irish wedding. The essential themes told, basically, one story, but it was rather like a pointillist painting, in which a picture is constructed from dots of pure color that one has to step back from and which viewed from a distance form into a recognizable shape, in this case a portrait of two child killers. The more I researched, the more I came to know, the more evidence I unearthed, the more people I spoke to, the more I studied child murder the more flawed that portrait appeared. There is no space here to render all the stories that were told and retold about the crime and the family but two or three will make the point.

Almost from the beginning, that is within hours and days of her body being found, by her father, in a dingy basement room, that narrative was being laid down. It was claimed, for example, that the house at 755 15th St, was basically a fortress, alarm on, windows and doors locked. Not true. The alarm was off, doors and windows open. The police knew this because it’s in the police report from the morning of December 26, but they whispered their untruths to reporters who, to borrow that by now familiar phrase, acted as stenographers as they began to lay down, totally uncritically, the conceptual groundwork that it was clear that John and or Patsy Ramsey had killed their daughter. As early as December 27th an assistant DA was telling the media, anonymously of course ( though it would emerge later that it was Bill Wise) that “something’s not right.” A few days later the mayor, Leslie Durgin, announced to the press and the public that parents need not fear for the well being of their children, that police were not scouring the streets of Boulder for a crazed child killer.

When I asked her, in an interview for our first documentary, who had told her this she said “the Chief,” that is the police chief, Tom Kolby. The comment may have been an unfortunate mixture of the stupid and the unprofessional, but the implication was obvious and overwhelming, the police were working off the assumption that it was someone in the house who killed JonBenet, which of course they were.

Another, key story emerged in March 1997 when it was reported that police found it curious that there were “no footprints in the snow,” around the house. The implication was obvious, and intended: no footprints, no intruder. The slight problem with this, as law enforcement knew and the crime scene photos from December 26 make clear, was that there was little or no snow around the house.

Another little gem: John Ramsey, it was reported, had flown his private jet back to Atlanta, with his family and JonBenet’s casket on board. So there it is, Ramsey is so calm, so not grieving, so in control, so mentally calm that he could fly a jet. Ergo, he was a sociopath who killed her.

The source was, as we were told by the reporter who first broke the “story,” a member of law enforcement who had always been “reliable.” Problem was, not true. Dan Glick, a stringer for Newsweek who worked with us on the first documentary, did something which we used to teach in Journalism 101, he checked the facts. In particular, he checked the FAA take off and landing log at JeffCo Airport and discovered that in fact the jet had been sent by the Chairman of Lockheed Martin, which had bought Ramsey’s company, Access Graphics, and that the pilot was a Lockheed pilot. When we interviewed the reporter who broke this story, who is as far as I can tell a really nice guy, and I asked him why, he asked me in return “maybe you can tell me it wasn’t his plane and he didn’t fly it.” The script line that followed that soundbite in the documentary was obvious and, to be honest, devastating, “…it wasn’t his plane and he didn’t fly it.”

For the documentary we drew on many sources, tabloids, television, newspapers, news magazines, interviews with the Ramseys, family and friends, attorneys and reporters. We would be accused of overemphasizing the role of the tabloids, to which we would respond that there was little if any clear water between them and the mainstream media. Perhaps the most profound example of this was in a piece in Vanity Fair by Annie Bardach, which had the distinction of being the first publication with the text of the ransom note, but was also riddled with error, half-truth and downright untruths.

She wrote: that the Ramsey’s behavior was “odd;” she quoted Linda Arndt, the first detective on the scene, as reporting that between 10.30 and noon John Ramsey left the house to pick up the family mail. Arndt had said this, but it would later to be shown to be incorrect; she reported that only a small child or a midget could have entered through the basement window. Not true, I’ve been through as have people larger than me; she said that near JonBenet’s body was her red “pageant nightgown. Not true, it was a Barbie nightgown. She reported that Hal Haddon, the senior Ramsey attorney, was a political ally of the District Attorney, Alex Hunter, when in fact they had never even met; she reported investigators saying that the ligatures around JonBenet’s neck and wrists were “very loose,” and were consistent with a staging. Not true, as we now know from the autopsy photos which show that the ligature was so tight it caused a deep gouge in the child’s neck; she reported the story that there were no signs of forced entry, and no footprints in the snow; she reported that JonBenet was a chronic bed wetter and that Patsy had taken JonBenet to her pediatrician 30 times. In fact, it was 27 over a four year period, some of those with the nanny. Dr. Francesco Bueff, the pediatrician, told us that there was nothing abnormal about this, that there were no signs of abuse and that she was not a chronic bed-wetter; Bardach also reported the story that John Ramsey flew a private jet back to Atlanta for the funeral. Not true.

Bardach’s piece was the very gold standard of the media errors, and yet it was certainly influential and was perhaps cited more than any other single piece as laying out the case that the Ramseys were involved in their child’s death.
Frothing at the Mouth
And then there was the big one, the story of all stories: this was all about sex, and JonBenet had been sexually abused at home. The evidence for this ~ which we searched long and hard to find ~ well, it doesn’t exist, but vast numbers of people simply assumed that it did for the simple reason that this is what they were being told, ad infinitum.

Then there were the things that weren’t said because they didn’t fit the police theory that Patsy had flown into a rage over JonBenet’s bed wetting, somehow smashed her head, staged the garroting, tied ligatures round her wrists and then wrote a two and a half page “ransom note.” It seemed to me a palpably silly idea, if only because there was nothing in her past to indicate any disposition to violence, let alone violence of this depravity. What was also missing from the public account was, for example, the clear indication that JonBenet was stun gunned; and the truth about the state of the house, the absence of the snow, the fact that he didn’t fly his jet and so on.

Crucially missing in the public case that was being made was the fact that DNA tests led the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to exclude, among others, John and Patsy Ramsey. This was known to the police by January 15th 1997, when the CBI lab completed the analysis of forensic samples provided by the Ramseys, along with a number of other people. This would be confirmed by further analysis in the early fall of 1999. For reasons best known to themselves the police chose not to share the first test results with the DA’s office until July 22, 1997 and, of course, kept the public blissfully unaware. The DNA was “foreign,” that is belonging to no known individual and was found in two drops of blood in the panties which, to say the least, needs explaining.

Mitch Morrissey, an aggressive member of the Denver DA’s office, who was one of a number of advisers to the Boulder DA, Alex Hunter, theorized, it would emerge later, that it belonged to someone in the Taiwanese factory where they had been manufactured, perhaps by sneezing as the panties were being made or wrapped in their packing. They even sought a supplementary budget from the County Commissioners to send a detective to the factory. The Commissioners declined the suggestion.

There was one other, telling moment involving the Commissioners. Bill Wise was speaking with them at a meeting and assumed that the microphone in front of him wasn’t live. He was heard to say that the person who killed JonBenet was “wealthy.” John Ramsey was wealthy, though not the billionaire that some claimed and while Wise’s gaff led to his removal from any involvement with the case, it nevertheless was shaving with the grain of prevailing belief about the case, the Ramseys did it.

There is so much more, but this will, I hope, give something of a sense of what was going on here: the establishment of a narrative that would convict the Ramseys in the public mind ~ a mind which seemed to want to believe in their guilt ~ and force the then DA, Alex Hunter, to indict, take it to trial, get them convicted and perp walk one or both to death row.

The laying down of that narrative seemed to happen in barely a moment as the whole world just “knew,” the child had been killed by her parents, that “bastard billionaire, John Ramsey,” and the “white trash with cash, Patsy Ramsey, oh God how I hate that woman.” These were the mantras, the banshee squeals around the case that echoed across not just the United States but the whole world. I lost count of the number of times I had people screaming at me, frothing at the mouth, when I even dared to question their certainty of parental guilt. What was really fascinating was that when I asked how come they were so certain, so knowing, the reply was often along the lines of either repeating the media stories but, more often, commenting that they “looked guilty,” or “ it’s a gut feeling.”

I have searched long and hard in the Constitution and in law manuals and have yet to find the proposition that, if accused of a crime, I have a right to be judged by a jury of my peers’ guts.
JonBenet, pt. 2: vile bigotry and voodoo stupidity

by Michael Tracey

Several incidents in particular focused my attention not on the murder but on how we seemed to be dealing with it as a culture. In March 1997 the CU branch of the Society of Professional Journalists organized a forum on cheque book journalism, particularly as it related to the Ramsey case. The panel consisted of two reporters from the National Enquirer, a reporter for the cable tabloid programme Hard Copy and Chuck Green of the Denver Post. Green, a strangely bitter, cynical man was known to be hyper-critical of the investigation, and of the role of the DA’s office in pursuing the case and in what Green took to be the protection of the Ramseys.

“…it’s not an important story, but it’s entertaining”
One of the many myths that would come to cling to the case like leeches on skin was that John Ramsey was plugged into a Boulder power and cultural elite, one which had circled the wagons to protect their own. It was not true but its mythic potency served a useful purpose of constructing the sense of guilt and responsibility which so many seemed to crave. The composition of the panel on a bleak, cold evening struck me as grotesque, but the room was packed with students ready to sit at the feet of these towering examples of the Fourth Estate. Here were paraded tales of unlimited expenses, traveling hither and thither across the country, picking away at the scabs of society. It was altogether an appalling experience, particularly given that while clearly many of the students in attendance were not taken in others had eyes that grew ever wider.

I was sitting on the front row, feeling angry and despondent at the proceedings. At one point I asked Green a question: “I know this is a big story because you, the media, made it a big story, but do you think it is an important story?” He paused for barely a moment and then uttered a comment that while certainly honest was as appalling as it was revealing: “no, it’s not an important story, but it’s entertaining…” There it was in all its grotesque shabbiness, a cynical truth that spoke volumes not just about Green, or the case, or the media but about the essential nature of the society at the end of the century. The torture and murder of a six year old child was now a form of entertainment. As I pondered the comment in all its horror and listened to the drivel that spewed from the mouths of the other panelists it seemed clear as could be that the Barbarians had indeed crossed the Tiber.

A couple of months later I was asked to talk to the monthly luncheon of the Boulder Democratic Party Women’s group. The other speaker was Mimi Wesson, a law professor at CU. My role was to comment on the media coverage, hers on the legal issues that the case had thrown up. At one point a lady of extended years stood up to ask a question. She wore a nice floral dress, and looked every bit the image of everyone’s favourite grandma. She then asked Mimi, in a voice as shrill as the early morning call of a shrike, “why don’t the cops just go in there and grab the Ramseys and take them down to the police station and get a confession out of them…” Applause swept round the room. Mimi responded bravely “err, because they have constitutional rights, we don’t live in a police state etc etc…”

What caught my attention however was not just the exchange but the fact that everyone’s grandma was literally frothing at the mouth. It was a terrible sight, troubling and frightening in what it meant for some of the most essential guiding principles of any civilized society – fairness, compassion, rationality, impartiality, the presumption of innocence, understanding based on evidence.

I came to think of these kinds of judgments as the problem of ‘the face,’ the extraordinary way in which people would look at the faces of John and Patsy Ramsey and see guilt. One e-mail posted on the internet from Theresa16@aol.com., said – and I reproduce it here exactly as she wrote it – “I think PATRICIA RAMSEY killed JonBenet. I must confess that each & every time I see patsy on television I get a COLD CHILL UP MY SPINE…patricia ramsey is EVIL…i am not trying to be cruel/nasty. but…WHY does patricia ramsey CONTINUOUSLY have that “GUILTY SMILE”???…”
Serious Juju and Lactate Fed Omniscience
There was another occasion when David and I were showing clips from the documentary at the Denver Press Club, a rather dowdy place with sodden hacks at the bar and a genial barman. At the end of the evening, after much discussion which revolved around the question of whether the Ramsey’s were complicit in their daughter’s death, a female journalist suddenly said “I think John Ramsey is a pedophile, he has a twitch.”

This was the sort of statement that all one can do in response is stare in blank amazement. But here we had a member of the fourth estate deciding, like some 19th century quack, that she could divine character from the physiology of appearance. And the assertion that there was a relationship between a twitch and pedophilia was up there with all those stereotypical child molesters who are fat and squat and slavering. The other slight problem with her analysis was that, after spending endless hours in an editing suite staring at John Ramsey’s face, I never did see a twitch. Her sight of this affliction seemed to suggest that the eye does indeed see what the heart desires, because it is quite clear that she wanted to see the pedophile in him. It came as no surprise when, in conversation, she hinted that there had been sexual abuse in her own life, not that this is sufficient excuse to accuse someone of abuse, willy-nilly.

I remember another occasion, one that I pick from innumerable possible examples, that was similar. I was being driven to Denver to do the Larry King programme. They had sent me a car, it was August and I was heading down I-36 in a Lincoln Town Car. The driver was Steve, a soft spoken man, as broad as he was tall, with a wispy beard and shaved head. He would not have looked out of place at a leather bar in the Village. In reality he was married with three children, whom he obviously adored, along with what he called “200 close relatives” in the Denver area, about whom he clearly cared. We chatted and he asked me about the King show and so it was that it emerged that we were to discuss the Ramsey case. He paused and then said “ what’s always puzzled me is why they look so guilty, especially her, Patsy looks guilty.” What I wondered, and not for the first time, does guilt look like? And why did such an obviously decent man utter such dangerous bigotry?

There is one other, powerful example worth recalling, of this tendency to hate but not know. It was the annual Christmas party of the SJMC, in 1998 – our documentary on the media coverage of the case had gone out on A&E in the Fall. Colleagues, friends and enemies, milling around, making small talk and trying to be pleasant. In several such conversations the Ramsey case emerged. In one I was talking to a well known, senior professor. She looked sharp, in the sense of flinty rather then be-suited, her skin was pale and taught. She suddenly muttered, “ I think they are despicable.” “Who?” I asked, somewhat dumbly. “The Ramseys.” “Why?” I asked somewhat stupidly. “Because they abused and killed their daughter.” I replied: “Tell me why you think that?” “Because,” said this senior professor, in a major research university “I’m a mother of two, I know…” I remember thinking, this mothering thing is serious juju, lactate fed omniscience. I also had an overwhelming desire for an extremely stiff drink as I contemplated this perfect coming together of vile bigotry and voodoo stupidity.
The Illusion of Knowledge
And yet I had heard something similar so many times in the weeks and months after the murder, a deep belief among so many people in the guilt of the Ramseys, a belief that could not possibly rest on anything of any substance since there clearly was absolutely nothing that was publicly known that could justify that belief. There was one thing, however, that could not be avoided, and that was the story which had been told by the media, a story drenched with theory, innuendo, allegation, rumour, a story that took as given the likely involvement of the parents. It was a situation that reminded one of similar statements by two very different people: Josh Billings’ comment that “ignorance ain’t so much a matter of not knowing, but knowing so many things wot ain’t so” and Daniel Boorstein’s that “the problem is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.” If ever there was a case were ignorance masqueraded as knowledge it is the public and the media and the presumed guilt of John and Patsy Ramsey.

Initially the media focus was on John, who was publicly and repeatedly called a child molester and a killer. Then the focus moved inexorably to Patsy. There would be those who would argue that Burke was involved, and even JonBenet’s half-brother John Andrew. The fact that there was video footage of him taking money from an ATM in Atlanta on Christmas night did not necessarily deter some from this theory. One especially nasty tactic adopted by the tabloids would be to get someone to goad him into a reaction, with a photographer ready to photo this “aggressive” young man, lending force to the idea that he could be a killer.
To this day, over a decade later, I still hear comments from even apparently sane and reasonable people, unaware of their ignorance as to the most basic facts, who say they just “assume,” that the mother “did it.” End of story. No reflection. No sense of the appalling injustice of making such judgments on the basis of a feeling. There was, and is, an almost religious fervor to those who believed, and believe, in the Ramsey’s guilt, the fervor in fact, of the true believer, and anyone who questioned that ‘truth’ became a heretic.

I understand that underlying much of this is the child herself. In some photos a natural beauty shines through. In others there was the coquettish child of the pageants. In fact it was clear that much of the issue of the apparent loathing of the Ramseys by strangers begins and in a sense ends with JonBenet herself, with her looks and with her name and most of all with the photos and videos of her in those pageants. There is certainly something about the pageant world that comes over as so kitsch, cheapened culture, “bread soaked in perfume” to use Robert Essler’s bitter comment. In a remarkable outburst on Larry King Live, Janet McReynolds (wife of Bill McReynolds, who played Santa at a number of Ramsey Christmas parties and who would become in some eyes a serious suspect) captured this quite brilliantly – some might say too, and disturbingly, brilliantly. She said:

“I feel that ….the media is (sic) saying to this collective community…in some way she deserved to die. That, at least, is a message that I am getting: She deserved to die, she was too beautiful. She deserved to die because she was from an affluent family. She deserved to die because she lived in an upscale community. She deserved to die because her family taught her gestures which might be interpreted as sexually suggestive. She deserved to die because she was in beauty pageants….. And to me, that is a crucifixion of an innocent victim.”

These are strong words. In the bizarre Alice in Wonderland aspect of the case it is worth mentioning that Janet McReynolds’ daughter and a friend had, twenty years earlier, been abducted and assaulted. The date was the 26th December. Janet also wrote a play, Hey Rube, years before about the torture and murder of a young girl whose body is found in a basement. Bill himself had a harp. On the wooden frame were written the names of dead children.

Janet McReynolds’ observation to King had, however, at least to me, a certain insight. There was a deep, pervasive feeling it seemed that no child should have been dressed as JonBenet was. No child should have worn mini-adult clothing, prancing and preening and singing. It was this more than anything that surely lay behind the rush to judgment about the parents, that fed the fires of speculation, that so readily and for so many led to the conclusion that this was all about sex, abuse and therefore death. The fact that there are enormous numbers of children, pretty babies one and all, engaged in pageants seemed irrelevant, even though it is not unreasonable to argue that if there was a relationship between the pageant business and child murder there would be a lot more dead babies in our land.

Over time I came to feel, in the words of Rene Girard in a different time and place, that public opinion had become “overexcited and ready to accept the most absurd rumours…” It did show, however, that the mesalliance between a few members of law enforcement and the media had worked a dark, mendacious magic, and that what happened in Boulder in the days and months and years that followed was perilously close to a conspiracy. A conspiracy to have executed – because if ever was a capital crime, a homicidal act of unusual viciousness, this was it– two people who were innocent.

It was a spectacle that one should never see in mature democracy, with respect for the rule of law and the rights of citizens to be presumed innocent. It was not only perilously close to conspiracy, malevolent and dark, it was all so very sleazy. Real sleaze, not the run of the mill, pathetic thieving of a few bucks here, a few more there; not the wasted curb crawler, the pimp on the corner, the hooker in his sight; the dime-bag drug addict. That’s not sleaze, that’s wreckage. True sleaze is the absence of a guiding morality, an approach to life that is not conditioned by an ethic, by any fundamental sense of right and wrong, an amoral place in which ends justify any means, even if that involves lying – repeatedly. Trotsky once said that “the end may justify the means, so long as there is something that justifies the end.” There wasn’t. For many of those in the media and law enforcement, who connived in the witch-hunt, the chickens would eventually come home to roost accompanied, in the immortal words of Hunter S. Thompson, by several enormous black condors.

The problem was and is that the assault on reason, the trashing of their rights and the shredding of their character almost worked, as evidenced by the overwhelming disbelief that it didn’t.
October 13, 1999; the Justice Center, Boulder Colorado
A short, paunchy man walks out to the lawn in front of the Center to make an announcement. District Attorney Alex Hunter, has been in office for decades but he knows that his reputation is basically in tatters, that the events of the previous 34 months, the hysteria, the mistakes, the mendacity, the conflicts had damaged him, and so many others, in a way that was utterly beyond redemption. Hunter is there to announce to the whole world the results of the months long investigation by a grand jury into the murder of JonBenet. Surrounded by a throng of journalists, gawkers, cops, microphones, cameras Hunter announces: “…we do not have sufficient evidence to justify filing charges against anyone who has been investigated at this time…”

One could sense in Boulder, across the state, across the whole nation and beyond bewilderment, fury, disbelief and, for a small few, unimaginable relief. At an undisclosed location in east Boulder, John and Patsy Ramsey, who had returned from Atlanta so that their arrest would be out of sight of their son, Burke, and their other family, were gathered with their attorneys, Bryan Morgan, who was representing John Ramsey, Pat Burke, for Patsy Ramsey and Hal Haddon, the eminence grise of the whole defence team. A few close friends were also there to share the agony. Patsy and John knelt in front of the television, holding hands. In her other hand Patsy clutched what had been JonBenet’s favourite toy, a small porcelain kitten. In deep agony she moaned that she knew she was going to prison. As they heard Hunter’s words they screamed and hugged each other. A great wave of relief washed over all those in the room. They knew that if there was no indictment now, there almost certainly never would be. They had expected the worst. Bryan Morgan left the room, went outside, sat on rock and wept. John Ramsey followed and placed a comforting arm around his shoulder.

In Colorado Springs, retired detective Lou Smit had been driving his truck as the announcement was about to be made. Smit had been hired by Alex Hunter to act as an investigator for the DA’s office back in the spring of 1997. He was hired because of his extraordinary reputation as a detective who had conducted 250 homicide investigations and had never lost a case in court. When he arrived in Boulder, in that spring of 1997, he had assumed, because he had been following the story in the media, that the Ramseys were probably involved, and that proving this would be a “slam dunk.” These many months later, as he pulled over to the side of the road to listen to Hunter’s statement, he knew more than anyone that the case may have been many things, but slam dunk it was not. Smit had come to author what became known as “the Intruder theory,” his utter conviction that a high-risk, deeply violent, sexually sadistic pedophile had entered the Ramsey home, taken JonBenet from her room, asphyxiated her as an act of torture, sexually assaulted her and finished her off with a blow to the head. He resigned from the case in September of 1999, just ahead of the conclusion of the grand jury, because he refused to go along with what he assumed would be the indictment and, in his eyes, the railroading of two innocent people.

As he waited, that Fall day, sitting in his truck by the side of his road, he was gripped with a deep fear that what he would hear was that the Ramseys had been indicted, the first step on their painful and inevitable walk to the gas chamber. As he heard Hunter’s words, that their would be no indictment, a crushing sense of relief washed over him and, like those others in Boulder gathered around the Ramseys, he started to sob. In all of their minds they knew that despite everything, despite the fact that their had been what was in effect a conspiracy by law enforcement to have the Ramseys convicted, despite public hysteria and a malevolent media, despite all that, a certain kind of justice had prevailed and a profound injustice avoided.
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